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[mallard lake]San Francisco’s Lakes: The 10 watery worlds of Golden Gate Park

Update time:2021-07-08 12:21Tag:

  By now, drought distress has likely set in, and we find ourselves parched for water in any form, drawn to it like human divining rods. Yes, yes, we have the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, and those count, for sure. Yet one place to hunt for H2O that might not immediately come to mind is Golden Gate Park.

  This precious park is well loved for its world-class museums, botanical gardens and swaths of places to picnic and play. But it’s also the ultimate desert oasis: a three-mile, 1,000-plus acre greenbelt of forests and meadows that triumphed over a once-barren, wind-pummeled section of sand dunes, originally called the Outside Lands.

  And what’s an oasis without water features? Human-made lakes — 10 of them, give or take, depending on whether you consider a pond a lake – are sprinkled throughout. And while you can’t swim in these lakes and/or ponds, you can boat on at least one (two, if you count sailing miniature yachts as boating), and there’s no limit to skipping rocks, enjoying the serenity or watching ducks dive for snacks. Each spot has its own personality, and there’s even some mystery involved …

  Taking a tour

  On a recent sunny morning, I embarked on an aquatic adventure to find all the lakes, beginning at the most mysterious water body in the park – Lloyd Lake, set in the middle of the park along John F. Kennedy Drive at 23rd Avenue. Its distinguishing feature stands across the pool of emerald liquid — a white marble portico with six lean columns dubbed the “Portals of the Past.” It was originally the front entrance to an elegant Nob Hill mansion that was completely destroyed — all but this portico — in the 1906 quake. Placed here in 1909, the portal stands as an eerie memorial to the disaster.

  But that’s not all. Some believe the spot possesses paranormal properties, as it was once visited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a known spiritualist, and folks over the decades have sworn they’ve seen ghostly apparitions. The site was mentioned in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as the place that mesmerized the mysterious Madeleine.

  On this sunny day, it didn’t seem too eerie, though, surrounded by blooming nasturtiums and ceanothus, ducks snoozing on the banks and a woman sitting on a bench, petting a ball of fluff.

  But add some fog, and it would be another story. Also, if you’ve ever read any Harry Potter, you might recall The Veil in “The Order of the Phoenix.” I decided against climbing through the portal, just to be safe.

  Continuing farther west in the park along JFK Drive, past the bison paddock, is the sweet sight of Spreckels Lake, named for sugar magnate and former park commissioner Adolph B. Spreckels. This lake has a completely different personality from Lloyd’s. It’s more open, encircled by a sidewalk that’s always busy with pedestrians, kids and dogs walking their guardians. There’s usually an Annie’s Hot Dogs stand – mmm, kraut and mustard dogs, water and sodas and big soft pretzels. Gulls like this lake a lot. Probably for the stray pretzel crumbs.

  You’ll notice orange cones positioned in the rippling water. That’s because this lake is home to the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, established in 1898. (They have a fleet of loaner radio-controlled sailboats for public use, but check for current pandemic restrictions.)

  Hidden gems

  A little further west and a right turn along Chain of Lakes Drive, just before you end up in the real world on Fulton Street, is the first in said chain — the North Lake. I know I’ve passed right by here and never noticed it before. It’s nearly hidden behind the oaks and pines and reeds poking from the water, but it may be my new favorite.

  Though manmade, all three lakes in this chain are wilder than Spreckels and Lloyd – not rimmed by a concrete edge, but looking as though they’ve always been here. Squirrels – a little too used to humans, apparently – are unmoved by passersby. Birds chirp. Tree branches dip into the drink. There’s a scent of licorice from some kind of vegetation. Benches are placed along the encircling path to view glimmers of sparkling water.

  Backtracking the route along Chain of Lakes Drive and across JFK are the aptly named Middle Lake and South Lake, near the Bercut Equitation Field (it’s a horse thing). Middle is scheduled for restoration this summer. And South, very close to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, has a long granite bench. On one side, the marker honors Fidelia Jewett (1851-1933), a longtime public school teacher in San Francisco. Her partner, Stanford psychologist Lillien Jane Martin (1851-1943), is named on the other side with the inscription “Guide the Child, Salvage the Old.”

  Bonus lake: OK, not really a lake, but there’s water involved. Head back around to JFK again and proceed east, and you’ll find the Angler’s Lodge and Casting Pools, home to the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club?with members from around the globe.

  From the small parking area, take the stone steps up to the three huge, turquoise-hued fly-casting pools that sit in front of a log-style cabin surrounded by pines, and you’ll feel as though you’ve just emerged in a Sierra landscape. Anglers rhythmically fling out their lines toward markers in the water. Be sure to peek inside the lodge, with its knotty-pine paneling, stone fireplace, fish trophies and library about all things fishy.

  Lakes less traveled

  Make your way around to Elk Glen Lake at the intersection of 25th Ave and MLK. The nearby streets are busy traffic-wise, but the lakeside path is uncrowded, as it’s off the beaten tourist path. It’s also off the elk path, as there are none to be seen here these days. This lake has a little sandy beach area where, on this day, a couple has set up camp chairs beneath the drapery of willow trees. A small boy throws rocks and ripples the green water. Across the lake is a bit of urban flair — a rusty piece of chain-link fence and some graffiti on a pump station – so you don’t get too lost in the wilderness.

  Not far down MLK, you’ll find Mallard Lake in a charming, shady glen – traffic noise from Lincoln Way blocked by a steep hillside. Calla lilies and yellow iris dot the water’s edge, and there’s a little island in the middle of the lake with tall, ivy-covered trees. Today, there’s no one here. I have it all to myself, and I take a seat on a felled tree trunk beneath redwoods and buckeye trees. True to its name, mallard ducks seem to favor this spot. And some times of year you’ll see egrets and blue herons. There’s an eerie feeling here too – like the Creature from the Black Lagoon might surface at any moment.

  Metson Lake is another hidden jewel. It’s found along Middle Drive just south of Speedway Meadow and the Polo Field. It, too, is off the beaten path, one of the park’s quietest lake areas with looming cypress trees and reeds popping up along the shore.

  Once you cross over Crossover Drive (a.k.a. Park Presidio) toward the eastern and more tourist-luring side of Golden Gate Park with its museums and more, you’ll quickly notice more and more cars lining the roadway. But take Stow Lake Drive off MLK to the left and you’ll circle around to, yes, Stow Lake. (Access from JFK Drive is limited).

  Most locals are in the know about Stow, the largest and arguably most-loved body of water in the park, with its historic boathouse and café. You can rent rowboats, electric boats and pedal boats ($24 to $40.50 an hour) and drift — or paddle vigorously like a speeding duck – in a circle around the center island. Paddle beneath the double-arched stone bridge erected in 1893 and looking like it was stolen from Ireland, then alongside the Chinese pagoda (a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Taipei), the splashing Huntington Waterfalls and Strawberry Hill. The route takes about an hour at a gentle pace. Then stop at the café, currently open for takeout of hot dogs, panini and salads.

  There’s also a ghost story here: A sad tale of a mother who walks the banks looking for her toddler who drowned in the early 20th century. She’s known as The White Lady.

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  The last of the 10 lakes – give or take – is Alvord Lake, found on the far eastern side of the park at 501 Stanyan St., not far from Sharon Meadow. It’s small but sweet, surrounded by ferns and reeds. The path along the lake leads to Alvord Bridge – said to be the first structure of its kind to be built with iron-reinforced concrete in 1889. Beneath the bridge is a cavernlike pedestrian tunnel, its ceiling decorated with artificial stalactites.

  Another bonus: Lily Pond, just a short stroll from the Conservatory of Flowers. Some say it deserves status as a lake more than the smaller Alvord Lake, but there you go. It’s yet another hidden, watery gem.

  For more information on the lakes of Golden Gate Park, visit

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