Elkhorn Slough Reserve
Neil Wiley

When our associate publisher/art director Kathy McKinney told me about a recent canoe trip in Elkhorn Slough to see baby otters, it reminded me of many trips to the slough. I have hiked the trails alone and with tours, paddled kayaks with several groups, and taken wildlife pictures from a small boat deck.

With so many ways to enjoy this reserve, the question is which one would work best for you. Are you a birder, hiker, photographer, or tourist? Do you like to visit nature in solitude, or share it with others? Would you rather walk, paddle, or ride?
Before you decide, let’s clear up some misconceptions. “Slough” is a dirty word, but you can walk or ride through Elkhorn without getting in mud. What you see is a 1700-acre reserve dominated by shallow lakes, some from tidal water, others fresh water. You also see tidal mudflats, grasslands, and woodlands.

The five miles of trail are relatively flat, smooth, and easy. Walking down from the Visitor Center to a scenic overlook is about the only steep grade, and it is just 0.2 miles long and wheelchair-accessible.

Choose your trail. The Long Valley Loop is less than a mile (8/10). The Five Finger Loop is slightly over a mile, with another 0.3 mile to the Parson’s Slough Overlook. (This trail was closed in early May.) The only longer trail is the two-mile South March Loop. You can add another 0.3 of a mile to walk to Hummingbird Island (recommended but there is a short stairway), and another 0.3 of a mile to the North Marsh Overlook. Benches located throughout the reserve make the walks more comfortable.

Even if you don’t want to walk the trails, it’s good to visit the Visitor Center. A small museum, docents, a bookstore, and handy brochures add extra value to your visit. Be sure to pick up a free trail map and a color brochure describing birds of Elkhorn. The center and trails are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free to the center, restrooms, and picnic area.

If you decide to hike, the cost to walk the trails is $4.12 day-use for adults 16 and older. (No, I don’t know what the 12 cents is for.) Staff members can loan you binoculars or bird books at no charge. No pets are allowed on trails.
You can hike on your own. It’s hard to get lost, with few trail intersections and a big barn as an easy landmark for orientation, but bring the map.

If you would rather join a tour, sign up for guided trail walks on Saturdays and Sundays, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. An early-bird tour is available on the first Saturday of the month at 8:30 a.m.

What about photography? Even though May is usually the best month to see large rookeries of herons and egrets, I saw few waterfowl. I enjoyed the scenery and small birds, but I had to visit Moss Landing State Beach off of Jetty Road on the ocean side of Highway 1 to find otters.

A few years ago, I had better opportunities on my Photo Safari boat dedicated to wildlife photography. I liked the nice benches for fast access to several cameras and lenses, the unimpeded views, and guidance from a knowledgeable captain and a professional nature photographer. You’ll need a fast, high-resolution camera, a long lens (400 or 600mm), and a little luck.

It’s risky to try photography with an expensive camera from a kayak, but paddling gives you the freedom to enjoy more intimate views of wildlife. If you don’t have a guide, be sure to carry a map, and know when the tide will be against you.
For Visitor Center, trail, and wildlife information, call 831-728-2822. For Elkhorn Safari, call 831-633-5555 at least a week in advance to guarantee a reservation. For kayak rentals and tours, call Kayak Connection at 831-724-5692, or Monterey Bay Kayaks at 831-373-5357.

To reach the Visitor Center while avoiding a long stretch of two-lane Highway 1, take Highway 1 south from Santa Cruz to Salinas Road and turn left. Follow Salinas Road past the golf course and turn right on Werner Road. At the bottom of the hill turn right on Elkhorn Road. Go 0.25 miles, turn right on Elkhorn Road (again). Follow Elkhorn Road for five miles. Turn right into the reserve at 1700 Elkhorn Road.
Elkhorn Safari and the kayak companies are located in Moss Landing. Call for detailed directions.

Whether you hike, paddle, or ride, you’ll enjoy Elkhorn, even if it sounds like a slough.