Mountain Lake is one of the few remaining natural lakes in San Francisco and is the only lake in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Nestled in the southern Presidio east of the Public Health Service District, it is a popular destination for visitors, and provides habitat for many bird species. The area is noteworthy because Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and his scouting party camped here in 1776 when they arrived to establish a Spanish fort at the Golden Gate.
Visitors can enjoy a walk around the lake, relax on a bench, or volunteer at a habitat restoration work day. Adjacent Mountain Lake Park, managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, includes a playground, tennis courts, a basketball court, and picnic tables. Several trails can be accessed from the area.
Things to See, Do, and Learn
A History of People and Water
We halted on the banks of a lake or spring of very fine water near the mouth of the port of San Francisco. . . . Near the lake there were so many yerba Buena and so many lilies that I almost had them inside my tent.
~ Padre Pedro Font, Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, 1776
Like El Polin Spring, the fresh waters at Mountain Lake supported people as they discovered the lands at the Presidio.
The Ohlone Indians were likely the first humans to drink the lake’s waters. In the 18th century, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza camped here when his exploratory expedition arrived to establish a Spanish presidio on the peninsula in 1776. A diary entry from a member of the Anza expedition, Padre Pedro Font, contains the earliest written record of Mountain Lake. The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail passes through Mountain Lake Park and commemorates the 1,200 mile route followed by Anza from Sonora, Mexico, to the Golden Gate.
In 1853 the Mountain Lake Water Company was established to channel water from Mountain Lake for use by the City of San Francisco. The company spent $400,000 to dig a 4,000 foot long tunnel through the Presidio hills. At that time Mountain Lake was believed to be fed by natural springs at the rate of more than two million gallons a day. In fact, the lake results from surface drainage and has no underground source. Needless to say, the water company failed before delivering a drop. In 2010, Presidio archaeologists discovered a portion of the Mountain Lake Water Company Tunnel when doing research in the Tennessee Hollow Watershed.
In 1896 another attempt was made to use water from Mountain Lake. A pumping station was built there and pipes laid over the hills to the Presidio. Almost immediately the lake water showed contamination (likely from cattle from the U.S. Marine Hospital) and was condemned for drinking purposes.
Lake Enhancement and Community Stewardship