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Rebirth of a Wetland Oasis: Swan Lake Nature Study Area


In north Reno, Swan Lake Nature Study Area is a Washoe County conservation and public use area consisting of over 1,800 acres of land and wetland. Swan Lake is a designated Important Bird Area and nationally-recognized birdwatching site. Unfortunately, this place of natural beauty has endured a few years of challenges, a lengthy closure, and the community's unwavering determination to bring it back to life.

Swan Lake Nature Study Area is not just a park; it's a living history lesson. Settlers as far back as the 1800s reported seeing swans and migratory birds visiting the area. By the early 1990s it was locally known as Sewer Pond but the area naturally attracted an array of wildlife, including waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. It was a hidden gem, cherished by locals and has long served as an important stopover point for migratory birds.

Each fall, one of the most charming aspects of Swan Lake is the arrival of the Tundra Swans. These majestic birds, with their snowy plumage and elegant necks, migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds to the warmer, shallow waters of the lake. Each fall, Swan Lake becomes their winter haven and they gather in large numbers across the lake's surface, reminding us of nature's timeless rhythms and the beauty of seasonal migration. The swans will be arriving soon starting around November and will stay at the lake until around March.

Beyond the Tundra Swans, Swan Lake is home to a diverse community of wetland birds. From the elusive American Bittern, blending seamlessly with the tall grasses, to the striking Black-necked Stilt, with its impossibly long legs. Local Grebe species and Ibis, can be found at Swan Lake along with plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots. Even a pair of barn owls can sometimes be observed in the large tree near the boardwalk entrance.

September, 2023


The wetland's designation as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society in 2003 solidified its local significance. But it was a flood beginning in 2017 that pushed Swan Lake, for better or for worse, into the local spotlight, underscoring the need for its preservation and restoration.


Swan Lake Nature Study Area is no stranger to the ebb and flow of life - literally. Each year, thousands of birds use the area for migration and nesting. Baby frogs and toads can be spotted in the reeds in the summer and coyote hunting trails can be observed through the tall grasses. The park teems with life and for years it had welcomed birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. However, in 2017, the area was engulfed by flooding and water levels rose as much as 1.7 feet. The trails and boardwalks were heavily washed out and unusable. While some initial repairs to the park were started, the unprecedented local weather actually continued and subsequent winters yielded record precipitation levels for the area. In 2019, the high water level combined with high winds and intense wave action completely destroyed the floating boardwalk observation areas leaving them twisted and seemingly irreparable.

Fall, 2021

The flood and storm's aftermath left Swan Lake battered and broken. The floating boardwalks had once offered unparalleled access to this wetland habitat for visitors to observe local and migratory birds. Additionally, at least one of the trails to the outdoor classroom area was flooded over and rendered inaccessible. Other trails were washed out too, and the park, once a hidden gem of the North Valleys and sanctuary for migratory birds and local wildlife, lay in disrepair.

The closure of the boardwalks at Swan Lake Nature Study Area, following the flood, marked the beginning of a long and sometimes controversial journey. The decision to close the boardwalks was not taken lightly, and the lake itself has sparked impassioned debates from the community. Many raised valid concerns about the feasibility of restoration and potential future risks of flooding in the Lemmon Valley area. With the Covid Pandemic beginning in 2020, plans to restore the park and begin work were uncertain for several years. Washoe County Community Services Department (CSD) has enacted various stages of its flood mitigation plan for Swan Lake and the surrounding area, including constructing berms, installing pumps, and placing barriers. Additionally, a plan to reduce the overall amount of effluent and water being stored at Swan Lake is underway that will provide even more flood resilience for the area.


As the boardwalk closure extended into months and then years, the debate continued. Advocates saw the potential for renewal and recognized Swan Lake's significance as a vital wetland ecosystem, a sanctuary for migratory birds, and a place of education and inspiration. Local flood mitigation steps and clean-up to the park had started but the question of the boardwalks remained. North Valleys residents wondered when the boardwalks would be repaired and when field trips to the outdoor classroom could resume.

However, this fall, thanks to the dedicated community interest and Washoe County, the floating boardwalks of Swan Lake Nature Study Area have now been meticulously restored. They once again offer a front-row seat to the wonders of the wetland, providing access to the heart of this vibrant ecosystem. And while some trails are still on the mend, most of the park is now open, allowing visitors to reconnect with nature and kindle their passion for birdwatching.

September, 2023

September, 2023


As we celebrate the restoration of the Swan Lake boardwalks, we also look to the future. The park's journey is far from over. In Spring of 2023, PFAS, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were discovered in prior year’s water samples and research is continuing to investigate how serious the issue is. There are plans to post signage at Swan Lake to let the public know that there are PFAS in the water. While right now, it is unclear if the finding will impact local wildlife, Swan Lake will continue offering a haven for wildlife and serving as a prime example of a Northern Nevada wetland ecosystem.

September, 2023

It's a living reminder that nature is resilient, that communities can come together to preserve our natural heritage, and that, in the face of adversity, there is hope for renewal.

September, 2023

As we reflect on the journey of Swan Lake Nature Study Area, we extend our deepest appreciation to the community. The vocal and unwavering support, determination, and commitment to the restoration of this wetland by local residents made this reopening possible.


If you’d like to visit Swan Lake Nature Study Area to view the restored boardwalks or spot the Tundra Swans as they begin to arrive this month, you can find the park on Lear Blvd, north of Reno.

From the I-80 & US 395 interchange, travel approximately 6 miles north on US 395 to Exit 74 Lemmon Drive, turn North on Lemmon Drive. Follow Lemmon Drive 0.8 mile north to Military Road. Turn left and follow Military Road 1.5 miles to Lear Boulevard. Turn right onto Lear Boulevard and drive 0.4 mile, you will see a gravel road following a water-filled ditch. Turn left onto the gravel road, the drainage ditch will be on your right side as you drive 0.2 mile to the Swan Lake NSA parking lot. The boardwalk can be accessed by heading straight down the wide path next to the Swan Lake nature Study Area sign. The Lahontan Audubon Society offers a wide variety of information on directions and Swan Lake alternative sites on their website. If you’d like an alternative to visiting Swan Lake, snow geese and other winter migratory birds can be spotted in south-east Reno at the Rosewood Nature Study Area. Finally, if you’d like to learn more about volunteering and advocating for local parks, please visit our volunteer page.


3 Comments

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Guest
Nov 14, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I'm so pleased that the community has seen fit to restore this area. There are many kinds of waterfowl to be identified and the tundra swans are a unique sight to behold.

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Guest
Nov 13, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Please keep us updated on the continued progress and PFAS at Swan Lake.

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Guest
Nov 13, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you for this positive update!

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