For the past 10 months, the unruly willow trees, pink pickleweed, and freshwater marsh of the UC Santa Cruz Younger Lagoon Reserve have been out of sight to the general public. Usually accessible through guided tours, the reserve found a new way to keep people engaged with its unique ecology. 

The Younger Lagoon Reserve now offers a virtual tour of its 25-acre site. The virtual tour includes a series of 16 short informational videos that take visitors through an interactive map of the site. 

Even before the start of the pandemic, Younger Lagoon Reserve Director Elizabeth Howard and her staff were looking for a way to help more people learn about the reserve. With COVID restrictions preventing the public from exploring the reserve, Howard saw it as a perfect time to introduce a virtual tour. 

“People are very hungry to be in the natural world right now, and to connect with wild places. Across Santa Cruz County, throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in people wanting to be outside recreating, walking, being in the fresh air,” said Howard. “The virtual tours are meant to keep providing access and engage with the public during the pandemic.”

Located 15 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz, the Younger Lagoon Reserve sits right on the coastline next to the UCSC Marine Coastal Sciences Campus and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.

The ecologically diverse site serves as a living laboratory with eight different habitats. The 72-acre reserve is split into two portions — the enclosed 25-acre lagoon reserve and the 47-acre surrounding terrace lands — which include public trails and the UCSC Coastal Science Campus. The reserve is one of 41 natural reserves in the UC Natural Reserve system.

Habitats on the Reserve

  • brackish lagoon
  • coastal grassland
  • coastal scrub
  • coastal strand
  • freshwater marsh
  • riparian willow
  • saltwater marsh
  • seasonal freshwater wetlands

The interactive map of the reserve contains 16 markers, each correlating with a video. Users can click on a desired location and watch the video that pops up or scroll through the video options at the bottom of the screen. The video tours take about eight and a half minutes to complete in English and about 11 minutes in Spanish. 

A photo of Younger Lagoon.
Younger Lagoon and surrounding terrace lands are home to at least 454 species.  Photo courtesy of Younger Lagoon Reserve.

UCSC environmental studies student and reserve intern Rose Brown Orr did most of the work creating and designing the site used for the virtual tours, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Story Maps, and iMovie to generate the interactive map.

Orr worked to make the site as user-friendly as possible — the zoom feature allows users to see how close habitats are together, and the reserve’s general location on the California central coast. 

“The Seymour Center and the Younger Lagoon Reserve give you access to unique ecosystems and species,” said Orr. “[For] anybody who is interested in nature and learning about protected habitats, it’s definitely beneficial to be able to view these unique ecosystems, even remotely.”

Photo courtesy of UC Santa Cruz Younger Lagoon Reserve.

Internship – Habitat Restoration Field Crew

The Younger Lagoon Reserve is continuing to offer their quarterly habitat restoration internship for UCSC students. As of right now the internship is completely virtual, engaging students through written resources, videos,  and weekly discussions. The internship can be completed for course credit through the Environmental Studies Internship Office. 

Questions about the internship can be directed towards Vaughan Williams at The application can be found here.

The reserve serves as an outdoor classroom for many UCSC students, facilitating internships and promoting hands-on learning, even during the pandemic.  

Younger Lagoon Reserve restoration field manager, Vaughan Williams, helps lead these internships. Before graduating from UCSC in 2013, he worked at the lagoon as an undergraduate intern. 

“Our goal is always to engage with the public and with classes and students, and give them a space to learn about ecology and restoration and biology,” said Williams. “I was really empowered by the reserves when I was a student. I learned how to apply everything that I was learning in the classroom out in the field.”

With the onset of the pandemic, the intern program at the reserve had to rethink its approach to virtual hands-on learning. Williams plans to use the virtual tours with his interns but also hopes faculty will use them while field visits are unavailable. 

Ernesto Chavez-Velasco, UCSC senior and reserve student employee, played a big role in filming, adjusting the script, and finding discrepancies between the English and Spanish versions of the tours. He began his work at the reserve as an intern in fall 2020 and feels fortunate to have experienced the internship in person. While excited about the tours, he acknowledges that being online makes it difficult for visitors to engage and ask questions.

“I was lucky enough when I first started [at UCSC] I joined this internship tour and got to learn about it there,” said Chavez-Velasco, “but I know not a lot of people have even heard about [the reserve] or are aware of the opportunities there, so hopefully having something like this on the website can reach a bigger audience. ” 

While the staff at the reserve are unsure about the timeline for reopening to the public, virtual tours will be available to everyone, even once the reserve opens up again. 

“For a lot of people, [virtual tours] have become kind of invaluable through this time because you sometimes can’t go and see these things in person,” said Williams. “It’s this new virtual world that we’ve dropped into. It’s the best we’ve got.”

The virtual tour of the Younger Lagoon Reserve, in English and Spanish, can be found here. More information about the reserve and ways to get involved is available on its website.