A gentle little hike
Elkhorn Slough
Neil Wiley

I must admit that I never thought about hiking Elkhorn Slough. Although Iíve kayaked it several times, the idea of slogging through a slippery, shallow slough sounded somewhat soggy. In fact, I couldnít even say "slippery, shallow slough" three times without laughing. But a look at a map of the slough revealed many interesting looking trails to places like Cattail Swale, Whistle Stop Lagoon and Hummingbird Island. So I gave it a try.

Frankly, I still didnít expect much beyond water, muddy trails and flat, boring terrain. Well, thereís nothing better than low expectations meeting a peak experience. It was one of the best hikes Iíve ever taken, filled with graceful beauty, comfortable walking and delightful little surprises. I couldnít stop smiling.

This, however, was a special day. The sun was bright and warm, but the breeze off the ocean cooled the air, as if orchestrated to create perfection. And that same breeze cleared the air, so that the views of the slough and the ocean beyond were as crisp as a pen and ink drawing. You get the idea. It was another day in paradise.

As I walked a curving trail through a large meadow by the visitor center out to the viewpoint, the panorama grew wider and wider. To see it in more detail, telescopes are mounted in a small patio overlooking slough and ocean. You can also use binoculars, thoughtfully made available at the visitor center.

The walk down the small hill is easy and the trail is smooth. As you glide down, inviting trails meander off to the south and north. I took the South Marsh Loop, one of three major loops through the reserve. It is about 2.2 miles around, but there are several extensions.

I passed two old barns, then around a finger of the slough to Cattail Swale, a large freshwater pond separated from the saltwater marshes. This was one of the few areas that looked like a real swamp. Here, I saw large flock of mallards, visited with a volunteer docent, and met a fellow photographer who identified birds as we walked. We strolled along a forested trail, stopping to take an occasional photo or listen to birds. We also saw several painters recreating natureís artógiant oaks with a background of blue water.

The trail passed a large rookery pond, soon to be crowded with flocks of heron and egret parents and fledglings. (May is the best time to see an active rookery.) We followed a levee across Whistle Stop Lagoon to an eucalyptus-covered Hummingbird Island. While my fellow walker went on to photograph birds, I found a quiet grove with a large marble bench, a perfect place to watch two rabbits play, and for me to eat a well-deserved lunch.

I crossed the south marsh via a bridge, then went out on a boardwalk to get a closer look at a white egret. I also visited the old Elkhorn dairy site, complete with a giant dairy barn. It was a short walk uphill back to the visitor center.

My only mildly negative experience was the dive-pooping of my Corvette by some kites, but they made up for it by displaying some super aerobatics.

I left many trails for my next Elkhorn trip. I plan to go to Parsonís Slough Overlook and the rookery in May. This site held the record for the most bird species seen in a single day in all of North Americaó116 species on October 31, 1982. I also want to walk Five Finger Loop Trail that takes you to a popular wildlife blind, and perhaps Long Valley Loop Trail that descends through woodlands to the marsh. And Iíd like to try the trail to the North Marsh Overlook.

Elkhorn Slough encompasses over 2500 acres of marsh and tidal flats. The trails are wide, well marked and complete with benches, water fountains and portable toilets. The slough is an important feeding and resting ground for many migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. At least six rare, threatened or endangered species are here, including peregrine falcons, Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, clapper rails, brown pelicans, least terns and sea otters. You can combine your hike with a kayak trip, available at Moss Landing, visit Moss Landing State Beach or dine at Moss Landing restaurants.

The reserve is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee is $2.50. Parking, brochures and binoculars are free. Only foot traffic is allowed on trails. No pets.

To reach the visitor center, take Highway 1 south from Santa Cruz to the Moss Landing power plant. Turn left on Dolan Road, then left on Elkhorn Road. Watch for reserve signs on the left.

If you like easy walks with pleasant surprises, interesting scenery and lots of wildlife, especially birds, stroll the gentle trails of Elkhorn Slough.


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