Elkhorn Slough

by Garrett McAuliffe

Heading south from Santa Cruz, it’s easy to speed past the smokestacks and tourist tack of Moss Landing, what with Big Sur and more sumptuous coastline just around the bend. But those in feathered flight take greater notice. You may want to as well.

Tucked into the Pajaro Valley, past a sweep of strawberry fields, Elkhorn Slough winds seven miles inland from its mouth at the Moss Landing Harbor. This protected ribbon of tidal marsh and brine serves as one of the few saltwater wetlands left on the Pacific flyway. The slough (“sloo”) hosts tens of thousands of migratory birds as well as providing vital habitat (read: lounge and snack bar) for sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals. It also serves as a breeding ground for leopard sharks and bat rays in spring.

Among birdwatchers, it’s one of the premier spots in North America. But anyone can admire the great blue herons standing ankle deep in pickleweed, bolted in keen repose. Or their more spastic cousins, snowy egrets, stalking about stabbing for snails and other sweet meats. The official Elkhorn Slough website is a great resource for this Audubon Society-designated Globally Important Bird Area.

First stop: visitor center to check the tides (for birds, the best viewing is at low tide, when they hunt in exposed mud closer to shore) and to borrow a pair of binoculars. They charge $4 for adults to enter, kids and parking are free. Then head out—five miles of serene, easy trails loop from the visitor center down along the slough’s edge. It’s easy to lose track of time here, but beware: the park closes before sunset. The reserve is open 9am-5pm throughout the year, Wednesday to Sunday. Read more.

IDEAL FOR an afternoon hike with small children (go on a wildlife scavenger hunt), leisurely strolls, kayaking with otters, gazing through binoculars. A must if you like birds.

THE AUTHORITIES FROWN ON bikes or pets or leaving a trail of crumbs. Picnicking is limited to the tables around the visitor center.

CREATURE COMFORTS INCLUDE a well-kept visitor center with microscopes and snake skin displays. And tidy bathrooms. Outhouses can also be found along the trails at the large barn and on Hummingbird Island.

IF YOU’RE SAVVY YOU’LL stop for picnic supplies at the The Whole Enchilada’s roadside farm stand or the sandwich counter next door. Absurdly cheap strawberries, chocolate-dipped nuts, and homemade chips and salsa. Find them at the harbor, on the bay side just past the restaurant of the same name.

From Santa Cruz, head south on Highway 1 and travel 25 miles to reach Moss Landing. Turn left at the looming power plant onto Dolan Road. Turn left again after 3.5 miles (at the yellow crosswalk) onto Elkhorn Road. Look for the reserve entrance on the left 2 miles ahead.


South Marsh Loop Trail
3 miles; 1.5 hours; easy
Peek in on nature’s tidal rhythms and visit a small island on this gentle semi-loop following the estuary’s forested edge.

Five Fingers Loop Trail
1.5 miles; 1 hour; easy
Easy foray into a corner of the park favored by birds.

1700 Elkhorn Rd, Watsonville, CA, 95076. 831.728.2822. Learn more at the official Elkhorn Slough website.