Younger Lagoon Reserve

Younger Lagoon Reserve
Younger Lagoon Reserve / Photo by Clayton Anderson

Younger Lagoon is one of the few relatively undisturbed wetlands remaining on the California Central Coast. The original 25-acre lagoon portion of the reserve encompasses the remnant Y-shaped lagoon on the open coast just north of Monterey Bay. Portions of a freestanding sea wall remain. Most of the time, the lagoon is cut off from the ocean by a barrier sand and rock bar. Infrequently, the mouth of Younger Lagoon opens to ocean waters.

The lagoon and original Long Marine Laboratory properties were given to the University in 1973 by Donald and Marion Younger. The lagoon area is available for teaching and research activities, and accessible to the general public via guided tour led by docents from the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. The reserve is part of UC Santa Cruz’s Natural Reserve portfolio.

In addition to the lagoon, the reserve includes 47-acres of adjacent Terrace Lands which are located on UCSC’s Coastal Science Campus. Prior to their incorporation into Younger Lagoon Reserve in 2009, the Terrace Lands were farmed for nearly 70 years, then left fallow for another two decades. Since 2009, reserve staff and student interns have been working to restore this former agricultural land to native habitats. The Terrace Lands are available for teaching and research activities, and accessible via a network of public trails open from dawn to dusk. Overlooks and bilingual interpretative panels (English and Spanish) are located along the trails.

Although relatively small in size and surrounded by agricultural and urban development on three sides, Younger Lagoon Reserve is comprised of eight unique habitat types, including freshwater marsh, saltwater marsh, riparian willow, coastal strand (back dune), coastal scrub, coastal grassland, seasonal freshwater wetlands, and the brackish lagoon. Younger Lagoon Reserve provides protected habitat for 100 resident and migratory bird species. Approximately 25 species of water and land birds breed in the lagoon area, while more than 60 migratory bird species overwinter or stop there to rest and feed. Bobcats, coyotes, opossums, weasels, brush rabbits, harvest mice, the California red legged frog, tidewater goby, and threespine stickleback also reside at the reserve.

The location of the reserve, directly adjacent to UCSC’s Marine Science Campus on the urbanized west side of town, provides unparalleled opportunities for students to learn about the environment, implement field projects, obtain hands-on experience, and become actively involved in research and stewardship projects. Each year, the reserve serves as an outdoor classroom and living laboratory for hundreds of UCSC students and dozens of faculty. Additionally, a portion of the reserve has also become an informal recreational resource, highly valued and much used by campus and local community members.

Habitat Restoration

Younger Lagoon Reserve staff, student interns, and volunteers are working to restore approximately the formerly agricultural Terrace Lands to native grassland, scrub and seasonal wetland habitats. Restoration is planned to take place over a 20-year period through 2029. Restoration efforts require extensive weed control, propagation of native plants, planting and maintenance efforts (similar to farming or gardening, but in a wildland setting). Each quarter, the reserve sponsors dozens of undergraduate interns who participate in all aspects of restoration and stewardship activities.

Restoration of the Terrace Lands is required by the California Coastal Commission as part of UCSC’s Coastal Long Range Development Plan for UCSC’s Coastal Science Campus. Younger Lagoon Reserve’s restoration efforts are guided by a scientific advisory committee comprised of academic and professionals in the fields of restoration ecology, hydrology, and local land use history.

Teaching and Research

Located on UCSC’s Coastal Science Campus, Younger Lagoon Reserve is an ideal location for undergraduate teaching and research. Students can visit Younger Lagoon Reserve during their normal class schedule, without taking time away from other classes, jobs, or family commitments as is required when visiting other, more remote reserves. Graduate student and faculty researchers also appreciate Younger Lagoon Reserve’s location, which allows them to teach and conduct research on protected land that is visible (in some cases) from their offices. Ongoing research projects include investigations into the evolutionary ecology of lagoon fish, coastal fog, and native habitat restoration.

Internships and Volunteer Opportunities

Each quarter, dozens of UCSC undergraduates and community members intern and volunteer at Younger Lagoon Reserve. Student interns range from first-quarter freshman to graduating seniors and spend between 6 and 15 hours a week working on a variety of projects on the reserve. Reserve staff and student supervisors lead interns in a wide variety of field-based research and hands-on-learning experiences.

Elizabeth Howard
UCSC Natural Reserves
130 McAllister Way
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Younger Lagoon Reserve website

Santa Cruz County, 7 km (4.5 mi) from main Santa Cruz campus in Westside Santa Cruz; adjacent to the UC Santa Cruz Long Marine Laboratory

Observation platform and access trail provide wheelchair access and full view of beach and lagoon area without disturbance to wildlife or plants; other overlooks and interpretative panels along the Coastal Science Campus public access trail; no on-site housing or laboratory facilities; site best suited for day use.

The reserve bibliography includes citations of journal articles, books, theses, art, and other works published about or based on activities conducted at the reserve.

Plant List
Annotated checklist of more than 100 bird species, mammals, reptiles & amphibians, and fish  available on the Younger Lagoon Reserve website.

Reserve Director,
Restoration Field Manager
and Reserve Steward

29 hectares (72 acres)

0 to 15 m (50 ft.)

62 cm (24 in.) per year.

Winter: 12ºC (54ºF)
Summer: 15ºC (59ºF)
Dendra Weather Data

group of UCSC students restoring coastal prairie at Younger Lagoon
Students participate in hands-on restoration internships at Younger Lagoon Reserve. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu
reviving field research
Located just a few miles from campus, Younger Lagoon Reserve is a popular destination for field science classes at UC Santa Cruz.
Three undergraduates use instruments to measure photosynthesis rates at an International Drought Experiment plot at Younger Lagoon Reserve
The rate at which plants convert sunlight and air into energy (photosynthesis) will be affected by both global warming and drought. The International Drought Experiment examines how rates of photosynthesis will shift under drought conditions for plants in different ecosystems around the world. Image credit: Michael Loik
reviving field research
UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Dean McHenry with Donald Younger, donor of Younger Lagoon Reserve, in 1973. Image courtesy Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.