A Walk Around Buena Vista Lagoon

On the morning of March 9, 2018, my mother-in-law and I decided to trip to the Buena Vista Lagoon in Oceanside, California.

I had been here before but had never taken the quarter-mile hike around the Buena Vista Lagoon Audubon’s Nature Center.

I have been intrigued ever since, so we are back!

Come and join me for a tour!

Buena Vista Means “Good-View” In Spanish

Buena Vista Lagoon Cattails trees
What a view from the Nature Centers observation deck!

2202 South Coast Hwy, Oceanside


# Please click on each photo to see a larger version size.

Great Blue Heron Metal Statue

Let us now go over a few things before we take our hike.

The Buena Vista Lagoon is 223 acres of freshwater wetland that serves as a natural barrier between two cities- Oceanside and Carlsbad.

It is also important to mention that there are no other freshwater lagoons in Southern California.

So, we have a unique coastal ecosystem here!

You may fish from shore, and hiking is allowed on designated trails only.

Buena Vista Lagoon Map

I have always wondered about this lagoon/ coastal wetland ever since I moved down here 30 years ago.

Not only do you notice it when driving on Interstate 5, but you can also see it on Hwy 78, which runs east.

This waterway (Buena Vista Creek) runs parallel to Hwy 78 for almost 10 miles inland.

Who is in Charge of the Buena Vista Lagoon?

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife owns and maintains the lagoon.

Two non-profit organizations help support and preserve this site:

  • The Buena Vista Audubon Society
  • Buena Vista Lagoon Foundation.

Buena Vista Lagoon History

Buena Vista Lagoon Ecological Reserve Poster

The history of the Buena Vista Lagoon is fascinating.

In 1939, an ordinance was passed stating that firearms were not allowed to be discharged within the adjacent areas around the lagoon. Ultimately this is what turned this location into a bird sanctuary.

In 1968, the Buena Vista Lagoon became the first ecological reserve designated in California.

Initially, this body of water was a salt marsh. The inlet once connected to the Pacific, so the lagoon relied heavily on tidal action to help with the water circulation.

The Placing of the Weir 

Buena Vista Lagoon Weir
The weir in place is the reason that this is a freshwater lagoon.

 In the 1940s, the Saint Malo Community put up a weir to stop this connection and, as a result, created a freshwater lagoon.

 A weir is a small dam used to raise the level of a stream, or in this case, a small lagoon.

A group of private homeowners at Saint Malo Beach damned up the lagoon to keep it freshwater only.

Saint Malo is a unique private gated community of multimillion-dollar homes built in a French Normandy style situated right on the coast. By adding the weir, they now had their private lake as well.

Saint Malo Beach Buena Vista Lagoon
The Saint Malo community owns this section of the Buena Vista Lagoon.

There has been significant controversy over weir ever since.

More on that later.

Pacific Flyway at the Buena Vista Lagoon

 Do you like birds?

Did you know that the Buena Vista Lagoon is a part of the Pacific Flyway?

Can you believe that millions of birds pass by this area during their annual winter and summer migrations?

Trailhead Posters Birds Water Conservation

This is an excellent spot to go bird-watching!

The Four Basins of Buena Vista Lagoon

Buena Vista Lagoon Aerial Shot

The Buena Vista Lagoon aerial shot shows that it is broken up into four separate basins.

The last one is hard to see in this photo, but it is correct before you get to the beach, where a weir is set up.

saint malo buena vista lagoon
Saint Malo basin

 A group of private community homeowners at Saint Malo Beach on the last of the four basins.

Their primary objective is the keep the Buena Vista Lagoon as a freshwater lagoon.

The Buena Vista Lagoon has been in a state of decline, and this is due to excessive sedimentation and the uncontrolled spread of cattails and mosquitos because of this weir.

As of today,  there has been no dredging of the sediment since 1982! Whenever something is about to be done, another court case is filed once again.

Talk about red tape!

The Big Question-Saltwater Lagoon or Fresh Water Lagoon?

Salt water heals everything poster Buena Vista Lagoon

I can not tell you how many headaches this small little dam has given to this community

There are four options:

  1. Restore the lagoon to a saltwater marsh flushed by the Ocean.
  2. Create a hybrid lagoon with the eastern half freshwater and the western half saltwater.
  3. Dredge and improve the existing freshwater lagoon.
  4. Do nothing.

Pro Saltwater Lagoon Argument

After several years of environmental impact studies done by the city and the state, the conclusion was that removing the weir was in the best interests of the lagoon. It is also the most economical.

Advocates for removing the weir site have numerous studies showing how the infestation of the cattails and mosquitos would disappear, and biological diversity would increase.

You see, the cattails have been growing out of control. Many of the waterways have been choked off, thus making the water stagnant and, in turn, a natural breeding ground for mosquitos.

Opening up the lagoon to the Ocean would also help improve the circulation of the waterways.

Additionally, a brackish (salt/fresh) water environment would be ideal for many marine species as a nursery ground.

Buena Vista Lagoon Saint Malo Beach
Here is the last Buena Vista Lagoon quadrant before the Pacific Ocean.

Is Freshwater Best?

Opponents of the measure (the private homeowners) claim that if they agree to remove the weir, then sooner or later, the water from the lagoon would create a 100 ft wide channel on the beach.

Because of this, it would be impossible to walk between the two city beaches over 37% of the year.

Buena VIsta Lagoon run-off on Saint Malo Beach
Would the channel be 100 feet wide?

They also fear that the lagoon will decrease in size and become a stinky mudflat. The bottom line is that homeowners do not want a decrease in home value.

On the other hand,  many inland residents feel they are being held  ‘hostage” by the few who own the weir.

Their main complaint is the ever-growing mosquito problem overtaking adjacent areas around the lagoon. Everything can be resolved by just getting rid of the weir.

Mosquitos cannot live in saltwater!

Are you interested in more information?

Check this video out!

What do you think?

Walking On the Trail At Buena Vista Lagoon

Buena Vista Lagoon Trail Guide

Now let’s get back to the main reason we came here in the first place, to take that walk around the Buena Vista Lagoon Nature Center Trail.

We started outside the Visitor Center and followed the path to the left.

I want to add that the local Eagle Scouts have posted classification placards for many plant species all along the trail (see map above.), which I appreciated so much!

Let’s go!

Flora and Fauna of Buena Vista Poster
Here are a few examples of the Flora and Fauna

Fish Poster Buena Vista Lagoon

Beginning of trail Buena Vista Lagoon

Buena Vista Lagoon Trail dirt trail coastal sage scrub

Cattails sky trees

Buena Vista Lagoon bird watching platform cattails

Narrow and broadleaf cattails, spiny rush, and bulrush take over the lagoon edges.

Dirt trail between Cattails saltgrass
Cattails and Salt Grass

Bridge through Cattails

Cattails and Bulrush Buena Vista Lagoon
Cattails in the back and bulrush in the front.
Dirt trail through Cattails
These Cattails were over 8 feet tall!

Low water level Buena Vista Lagoon mud cattails

It is evident here that the lagoon’s water level is relatively low.

woman on bird watching platform woman

Do you see how tall these cattails are?

Compact Cattails in water
Notice how compact these Cattails are?

A Look at a Few San Diego Native Species

Native Species Torrey Pine, CA Sagebrush CA Bush Sunflower
Two Torrey Pine trees and California Sagebrush on the left, with California Bush Sunflower on the right.

 I was pleasantly surprised to see two Torrey pine trees while returning to the Nature Center.

If you are unfamiliar, the Torrey Pine is the rarest pine tree in the country.

 The Torrey Pine tree is only found in North County, San Diego. There is one exception, though.

A small grove is located on Channel Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara in Central California.

Would you like to see a grove of Torrey Pine trees up close? The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve hike is just 20 minutes south!

I highly recommend it!

Torrey Pine Tree Buena Vista Lagoon

Torrey Pine Tree Cattails Buena VIsta Lagoon

End of Trail bushes white sage
Lemonadeberry bushes on the right

Buena Vista Audobon Nature Center Native Species Garden

A mini-looped trail with smaller-sized versions of the vegetation seen here at the lagoon is located in front of the Nature Center.

I have to say that the Eagle Scouts did an excellent job of classifying the plants.

Let’s take a look!

California Sycamore Information
California Sycamore

California Sycamore Tree

California Sagebrush Information
California Sagebrush
Mulefat Bush
Mulefat Bush

Mulefat Information

California Buckwheat Native Gardens
California Buckwheat
Buena Vista Lagoon
Toyon Bush

Toyon Plant

Common Saltbush

Cleveland Sage Buena Vista Lagoon Native Garden
Cleveland Sage
California Mugwort
California Mugwort

Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center

Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center Welcome Sign

Let’s now take a look inside the Nature Center!

The Audubon Chapter of Oceanside is responsible for this facility. They built this Nature Center and had members and fellow volunteers on staff.

There are many free activities offered here.

For example, volunteers meet every Monday from 10 am-12 pm to do maintenance work around the native plant garden and trails.

Other activities include nature-led walks and a monthly bird census, which takes place on the 4th Saturday of each month.

 Interested in any more activities offered?

Click on the photo above.

Front of Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center
Do you notice the White Pelican to the left?

According to the Buena Vista Audubon’s official website, the lagoon accommodates 103 bird species, 18 mammal species, and 14 reptile and amphibian species.

Also, over 200 bird species have been observed and recorded here because of the Pacific Flyway!

Let’s have a look at a few of them now.

Glass bird showcase
Birds Seen At Buena Vista Lagoon
Great Blue Heron Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl Nature Center
Great Horned Owl

Let’s go upstairs to the observation deck!

Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center Conference Room

Many guest speakers lecture here, and the public is always free to join.

Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center view west second story
You are looking toward the west, where the weir is.
South lagoon view Second Story Nature Center
Looking South
East View Lagoon Second Story Nature Center

The End of the Road

Buena Vista Lagoon Torrey Pine tree Cattails
Torrey Pine Tree at the Lagoon

So there you have it, Buena Vista Lagoon, in all its glory! Did you enjoy the tour?

Which eco-friendly option do you think would be best?

In my opinion, restoring the lagoon to its original saltwater state would be the best option.

It is essential to realize that, at this point, something needs to happen sooner than later.

So far, it has been decades since any dredging has occurred, meaning more sedimentation by the day, month, and year.

Cattails Freshwater Lagoon
Freshwater Lagoon

On January 25, 2018, a court ruling was set back again because so many public comments came in at the last minute.

Thank you again for joining me on a mini-tour at the Buena Vista Lagoon Nature Center and trail! I sincerely hope that you, too, can come here one day!

Please check back later as I will showcase the weir owners- the mysterious Saint Malo Beach!

Until next time!

buena vista lagoon carlsbad view
A view of Buena Vista Lagoon from Carlsbad

Buena Vista Lagoon 2021 Update!

Great news! After decades of debate, it has been decided that the Buena Vista Lagoon’s weir will be removed. The only thing next is finding the money to do the job. Click on the link above for more information!

A Special Visit to the Buena Vista Lagoon Weir

Hi! I wanted to add a few more photos of the Buena Vista Lagoon, highlighting different areas, especially the weir.

On January 31, 2021, my husband and I took our grandson for a quick walk on the beach. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the water of the lagoon was overflowing into the oceans. I had never seen such a strong current before, and it was also at least four feet deep!

buena vista weir carlsbad city beach

inlet buena vista lagoon oceanside ca

Revisiting the Buena Vista Lagoon in 2022!

So one of my best friends was coming down to Carlsbad for a visit, so I took advantage of my free time to wait for her by visiting the Buena Vista Lagoon on a crisp November day!

I am happy to report that a couple of the volunteers reached out to me these past few months, encouraging me to check out all of the improvements within the lagoon and the new displays at the Buena Vista Audobon Nature Center.

Let’s take a look at what I experienced!

Walking Around the Lagoon- A Photo Tour

treasure hunt map buena vista lagoon

For fun, I will show you all of the features of this map! Let us pretend that we just stepped out of the Nature Center and headed towards the parking lot.

Trail sign buena vista lagoon oceanside

Turtle Beach

turtle beach cattails lagoon sky plants

Cattail AlleyCattail alley dirt hiking trail lagoon

You can see that many of the cattails are not thriving, which is a good thing.

Minnow View Deck

minnow view deck 22 bullfrog pond buena vista lagoon

Here is the first place to look at the lagoon for the first time. This area of water is designated as Bullfrog Pond. The water level was relatively high due to the higher-than-normal tide earlier that day.

Let’s continue our adventure, turn to the right, and follow that trail.

Following Pickleweed Path

Pickleweed Path hiking trails buena vista lagoon

I love how pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) changes color with the seasons in Southern California.

Here is where I noticed how so many of the cattails had been thinned out.

Mud Hen Bridge

mud hen bridge November afternoon

I love this bridge! I wonder why it is named Mud Hen. After some research, I discovered that a mud hen is a marsh bird with short wings and long legs, such as coots, rails, marsh hens-; or, in other words, mud hens.

Good to know!

Ruddy Duck Dock

ruddy duck dock buena vista lagoon


Sycamore Owl Roost

sycamore owl roost trees leaves dirt sun


Toyon Woods

toyon woods buena vista lagoon alcove


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18 Replies to “A Walk Around Buena Vista Lagoon”

  1. Ok, I am convinced! I need to go here. I lived in San Diego while in the Navy and never knew about this place. My wife and I love going to San Diego, and now that we are both retired, we are going to plan a trip to check all this out. If it is half as good as the pictures, it is going to be great.
    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Curtis! I am glad that you enjoyed it. San Diego is just gorgeous, as you probably remember when you lived here. Please feel free to look around at all the great places that you and your wife can see. Thanks again!

  2. I agree that the lagoon needs to be restored to its original saltwater. The lagoon is slowly dying with the weir being in place. And of course, the luxury house’s owners would be upset with the changes as it would decrease the prices on their homes and it is understandable. But if the weir is not removed, nature will be the one suffering.
    Great pictures and the place I would like to visit in the near future!

    1. Hi Anna! Yes, that weir has to go. I can understand that the homeowners are worried but after all of the endless studies and reports the saltwater options will not most likely make mudflats near the homes, but you never know.
      There are four other such lagoons in San Diego, but there are no houses right on top of them. I hope you will be able to visit here in person sometime soon! Thank you for the comment!
      I also just finished a post on the Saint Malo Beach if you are interested! https://70milesofcoast.com/the-mystery-of-saint-malo-beach

  3. Wow! I am from San Francisco, and I come to San Diego a lot. But I never noticed this little Buena Vista neck in the woods 🙂 From the eagle scouts to the locals who live there, this is the kind of community you want to be a part of. Even though the lagoon is in danger of becoming grassland, it seems as though the community is doing what is within their power to preserve the habitat. I would love to see the Weir and how its structured to keep the water in and forms a lagoon, this kind of thing fascinates me. I am definitely going to visit next time I am in So Cal

    1. Hi Sophia! I can not fault you because it took me years to visit the Buena Vista Lagoon! It is heartwarming how many in the community are helping out and are genuinely trying to find a solution. I sure hope that you will be able to visit the next time you are in town. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Hello Colleen,

    This reminds me so much of our lagoons here around Anchorage Alaska! They have tons of birds and even spawning salmon!

    I saw a blue heron once here! They are not super common here, and it was so neat to see one in a local lagoon.

    We have many Sandhill Cranes, however. They come here as part of the Pacific Flyway as you have mentioned. There are thought to be two populations of Sandhill Cranes in Alaska. Some fly up the continental route, and some follow the coast. These are the individuals following the coast that nest here. In our old house, we had Sandhill Cranes nesting behind our house. It was great!

    The controversy surrounding the lagoon sounds very interesting. I can see why both sides feel that way they do though it would seem returning the lagoon to its natural state would be good for the health of the lagoon. I wonder how that would affect the migrating birds, however? Some of them may have become dependent on a freshwater environment there. If it becomes grasslands, it won’t provide the necessary environment though.

    Thanks for the very detailed and fun tour of the lagoon! It looks like a great place to take a walk!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Jessica. I have always wanted to go to Alaska to see the whales. That is so interesting about the two different types of cranes in your area. I can imagine that the nest next to your house was very noisy as cranes are very load. That must have been so cool to see a Great Blue Heron in Alaska. Just last month we had a bald eagle sighting in my town. I have never seen one in the wild before, so I have been on the lookout!

      To be honest, if the lagoon returned to its natural salt water, it was determined that it would be the best option for the birds as well.

      I sure hope something is done soon. Thank you for visiting the site!

  5. A visitor to the Buena Vista Nature Center gave me this website today and told me to check it out. I am so glad I did. Very impressive research and I agree with your conclusions regarding the removal of the weir. A few years ago I did some research regarding the weir and found out it had been contracted and paid for by the Cities of Carlsbad and Oceanside, and by the Nature Conservancy. Back then, they thought it would help in keeping the lagoon full of water. They had no idea what the consequences would be. Now that they know, it’s an ongoing battle to try to get the weir removed. In has been estimated that if the weir stays, in about 20 years the lagoon will be gone , replaced by a field of reeds /cattails. Very sad.

    1. Thank you so much, Kelly, for taking the time to check out my website as well as commenting! I can not tell you how excited I was to read your comment! I also appreciate so much the patron who told you about my site. Regarding the weir, I would assume that because Saint Malo homeowners own the quadrant closest to the Ocean, seem to have the last say. Is that correct? Let us hope that sooner than later the weir will be removed. I can not even imagine how much silt has been building up since 1982!
      Thank you again, Kelly, and feel free to spread the word about 70milesofcoast.com!

      1. Thank you, Colleen, for writing about this very critical and controversial matter.

        I was at a Board Meeting this morning at the Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center and talked about your site and, specifically, your conclusions about the lagoon and the weir. I shared your website with everyone on the Board. Hopefully , you hear from some of them soon.

        I will also mention to them all the importance of sharing the website. It’s very impressive.

        1. Thank you again, Kelly! To be honest, I never realized the controversy is happening regarding the weir. I do recall in college learning how unique the ecosystem was. It still boggles my mind that there has not been any dredging done at all for over 36 years. Thank you again for sharing my website!

  6. I was at a meeting today at the Buena Vista Audubon Society Nature Center. I mentioned your blog and, specifically, your post about the Buena Vista Lagoon. I forwarded the website to fellow board members. Hopefully, you will hear from some of them. I also asked them to forward your website to others.

  7. Thank you so much for this very informative piece. The pictures are really helpful! I am a neighbor of the lagoon and I assure you those that support the weir are only homeowners in St. Malo. The rest of us suffer greatly from the mosquitos and are saddened to have to watch such a beautiful resource slowly dying. There is such a beautiful community spirit here and people genuinely want to do the right thing for the most people. I have to believe the lagoon will be opened to salt water despite the efforts of a small group. Pieces like this are so important so that everyone truly understands the issues and the history. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Julie! I was so happy to see your comment! I can not even imagine how hard it must be for you all to have to deal with not only all of the mosquitos but to have to witness the ill effects of poor water circulation is having on the lagoon.
      I pray that soon the weir will disappear. In all honesty, I can not believe that it is still there. Thank you again for visiting my site and please feel free to share 😉

  8. Just found this website. I see that Kelly (one of our volunteers) has already commented. We agree with her comments on your excellent research. Please come see us again! Our volunteers were very productive during the shutdown. We have a new trail, all new exhibits inside the Nature Center, and we have cleared the reeds from key locations. (Done with Fish&Wildlife approval – we follow the rules for sure.)

    1. Hi Joan! Thank you for taking the time to comment! I will have to stop by and check out all of the new exhibits and the newly cleared areas. I am so happy to hear your update on all the recent work done at Buena Vista Lagoon. Thank you!!

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