Type: Municipal Park, SNRA park, 740 acres.
Entrance Location: Main entrance is along Skyline Blvd between JCT Great Highway and JCT John Muir Drive. Additionally, two parking areas for access to the perimeter trail (4.4 mi. paved) are recommended: One at the end of Sunset Blvd, another on Lake Merced Blvd near the southern tip.
Facilities: Harding main entrance: restrooms, phone, water, fishing, snack store, bar and grill, boat house, picnic tables with post bbq grills. Private golf course dominates much of the area.
Day Use Cost: No fee for day use parking. Fishing, boat rental (see below), and private boat launch involves fees.
Day Use Open: No curfew on circuit path. Lake use is 6am - 6:30am to 5pm - 8:30pm to coincide with daylight hours depending on the month.
Dogs: Excellent for dog walking on-leash on the circuit path. Not bad for lake fetching where beaches exist. No other good off-leash areas.
Boat Rentals: Rowboats or canoes: $9 hourly, $20 half-day, $25 full day, $30 deposit on each. Anchors, lifejackets and cushions $2 each with a $20 deposit on each piece of equipment. Private launch fee is $5. All private boats must register. No gas powered boats allowed. All boats due in at dock 1 hour before closing time.
Fishing: Shore fishing is allowed 1 hour before sunrise to 1 hour after sunset. California State Fishing License required. Additional day permits are required. South Lake $0.95, North Lake $4. The North Lake permit is significantly higher to support the advanced stocking program for that lake. Limits per permit are Trout 5, Bass 5, Catfish 10, Carp (no limit). Contact the Lake Merced Boating & Fishing Company, #1 Harding Road, S.F., CA 94132. Phone: contact parks and recreation at (415) 831-2700
Lake Merced is a dual lake system so large that it dwarfs all other lakes in and around San Francisco. It is surrounded by a narrow margin of park lands creating an area of 740 acres which is designated as parkland, most of that area being the surface of the lakes themselves. Although it may appear artificial in origin, Lake Merced is a natural spring fed freshwater lake system. Local ground water plays a large part in keeping the lakes fed. The area was acquired by Parks and Recreation for public use in 1950. It subsequently became very popular for fishing which has been amplified by a vigorous rainbow trout stocking program from Fish and Game over the years. The lake in its pristine state was beautiful, supporting cattails and reeds around the periphery, birds, trout, bass, carp, a vigorous hydrophilic ecosystem. It is utterly unique within the franciscan biological region and an important natural resource as well as an important recreational resource.
The problem with Lake Merced since the 1980s has been the three massive golf courses which surround it and have been sucking it dry by diverting the ground water for their own irrigation needs. Harding Municipal Golf Course, Olympic Country Club, and San Francisco Golf Club surround and penetrate the lake lands like a glove around its throat. As a result, the lake began slowly 'dying' as water levels dropped and water quality fell. The low point was in 1994, litterally, as the lake reached an all time low of 14 feet in depth (the top off depth is 30 feet).
The future is hopeful for Lake Merced, however, because the same organization (CalTrout) which 'saved' Mono Lake from Los Angeles is now involved with Lake Merced. The Mono Lake case set a new legal precedent for protecting the public trust. Progress has been made at Lake Merced thanks to Cal Trout. Draining of the water table has been reduced by 75% and storm water will now be partially diverted into the lakes. As of April 2004, water levels are back up to around 26 feet and rising. That and a renaissance of trout stocking has the lake headed back to its former glory. For more on this, see www.caltroutday.org/.
A few notes on the other qualities of Lake Merced. The premier highlight is a continuous paved path which runs uninterrupted around both lakes. This 4.4 mile circuit is superb for skating and biking. It has easy grades, a smooth surface and not a single curbed interruption which is phenomenal. The nicest part of the lake is perhaps the southern lagoon of South Lake which is physically separated from the main lake with an earthen divide and walking bridge. This is one of the few shore access opportunities with a beach facing the main lake. It should be noted that beaches are rare around Lake Merced. It is feasible to launch a portable boat from this beach from parking off John Muir Drive. The majority of the shoreline around Lake Merced is densely packed with tule reeds and offers no shore access but is pleasant from a boat. There are also beaches at the Harding Park entrance and thousands of tiny minnows can be seen swimming around in the shallows. Harding Park off Skyline Blvd is the main entrance to the park and all the main facilities are here. There is the boat house, boat docks, fishing piers, a bar and grill, and numerous picnic tables with grills. This is a popular spot for family barbeque picnics. Crowds come to picnic here on nice weekends. It is recommended for bbq picnics as a reasonably pretty setting with lots of weekend activity, certainly not for seclusion. Bird life around the lake is poor, as is water quality. A nice way to experience the lake from the shore is from a footbridge spanning the central 'pinch' between the east and west portions of North Lake. This bridge can be accessed from parking at the end of Sunset Blvd
Best Features: Superb paved path 4.4 miles completes a circuit around both lakes. Canoe and rowboat rentals. Still the best lake boating in San Francisco. Good for social events. Good for bbq picnics.
Worst Features: Low water quality combined with sinking water levels threaten the lake and are detrimental to fish. Fishing is poor. Park shares the land with large golf courses which dominate the open space and are destroying the lakes. Park suffers from neglect in general as the ecosystem and fishing patronage withers.
For more on the struggle over Lake Merced, visit www.lakemerced.org/.