Fed by an underground spring, the lake once flowed into the Pacific Ocean, its shores populated by the Ohlone. In the 1980s, the lake began to experience declining water levels, partly due to three thirsty golf courses diverting the ground water. Recent efforts have reversed this trend, and today the lake is regaining its health and vitality.
The lake was also the site of a famous Civil War-era duel. It was here on Sept. 13, 1859 that pro-slavery David Terry, a former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, shot and killed the anti-slavery U.S. Sen. David Broderick.
For this walk, start at the Muni No. 18 bus stop at John Muir Drive and Skyline Boulevard and head counterclockwise around the lake. To your right are the Lakewood apartments, and the Pacific Rod and Gun Club shooting range is on the left. A San Francisco landmark since 1928, this facility offers gun safety education and shooting practice and lessons. The club is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Soon, views of the lake open on your left with thick bunches of tule reeds hugging the shore. A popular pigeon hangout is ahead with some tables and chairs and a portable toilet. Here, a scenic, poppy-lined path cuts across the southern corner of the lake and leads over a bridge. This is a good way to avoid traffic noise and get a feeling of walking nearly on the water. An information sign tells you about the wallflower, pipevine, cobweb thistle and Indian paintbrush in the landscape.
After the bridge, bear to your right to emerge back at the perimeter path at the Benny Bufano sculpture “Penguin’s Prayer” with its stark black granite body and pink beak. Continue north to pass Brotherhood Way and San Francisco State University. To your left is the Lake Merced Pump Station and the green expanse of the Harding Park Golf Course. On a fence some thoughtful person has hung a tablet where you can hang keys lost by the many joggers, bikers and walkers.
At Winston Drive, another paved path cuts in to offer you lake views and picnic tables. Swallows flit over the lake. A large parking lot at Sunset Boulevard contains a statue of the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza. A path leads left across a bridge to the golf course. To the right, a scenic detour leads you back to the perimeter path.
When you get to Harding Road, turn left to walk over the bridge and enter Harding Park and the golf course. Here you will find clean restrooms, water, picnic tables with barbecue grills and, of course, the golf course. This is also the home base of the Pacific Rowing Club, which offers a rowing program for San Francisco high-schoolers. Scenic paths lead down to both the north and south lakes. You can walk out past the boathouse onto the docks for a spectacular view of the south lake.
Forgot to pack lunch? Get a sandwich, salad or burger at the Cypress Grill in the Harding Park Clubhouse. The restaurant is open daily until 4 p.m. The bar is open until 5.
There are several No. 18 Muni stops around the lake. For this walk, exit at John Muir Drive and Skyline Boulevard.
By car from San Francisco, follow the Great Highway south to Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Turn right. There is limited parking on the right just after John Muir Drive. You can also turn left at John Muir Drive and then left again at Lake Merced Boulevard. There are a number of parking areas around the lake, including a small lot at the Benny Bufano statue just south of Brotherhood Way and a larger lot at Sunset and Lake Merced boulevards.
Photo: Michael Ocampo via Flickr