Enjoy three very different parks in one day. Each offers a special experience. Walk along the water’s edge to get close to flocks of waterfowl. Tramp atop a sandy plateau with scenic views. And finish up with a stroll along grassy paths through a manicured oak forest. The three parks are not far apart, and not far from our mountains. And even better, you can begin or end your three-park tour with eating and shopping in Moss Landing.

Kirby Park
I’m sure that many of you have toured Elkhorn Slough by boat or on foot. It’s one of the best places in the world to see birds. If you haven’t visited the slough, click on Hikes and other explorations at the www.mnn.net website to read about boating and hiking alternatives. If you have been to Elkhorn, here is another way to see it.

Drive down Highway 1 to Moss Landing, and turn left on Dolan Road, and left again at Elkhorn Road. This road takes you past the Elkhorn visitor center, and down to the slough at Kirby Park. In fact, at high tide, you may have to ford a finger of the slough to reach the park. (The entrance is on the left, about 2.6 miles past the visitor center.) A short way down the hill is a parking lot right next to the water. This is a much easier place to launch your own kayak or other small boat than from the Moss Landing docks.

But you don’t need a boat to enjoy the slough. To the right of the parking lot is an easy walking and wheelchair-rolling path to a 170-foot-long footbridge and a short trail ending at the railroad track. Benches about halfway down the trail provide some comfort while bird watching.

The trail is close to the water. This is a good thing while watching the birds, but a bad thing at high tide when the water covers sections of the trail. (The railroad track that parallels the trail is on higher ground, but a deep ditch separates you from dry land.) Although drowning is unlikely, a high tide could strand you at trail’s end for an hour or so, or get your feet very wet.

If you have time, be sure to stop by the Elkhorn visitor center and museum to see the exhibits and ask questions of the friendly docents.

Manzanita Park
To reach the next stop on our tour, drive back down Elkhorn Road, but instead of turning right on Dolan, turn left. The road name is now Castroville Boulevard. At about two miles, watch for a sign on the right declaring “Manzanita Youth Sports Complex.” When you turn at the sign, the gate may be closed, but that’s OK. You can park off the road, and then walk up the paved park road to the soccer field. Turn right past the soccer field to another gate. This is the main trailhead for a three-mile trail that loops around the entire 464-acre park. You should see a small wooden sign showing a trail map.

Although there are few signs, following the main trail is easy. It is wide, sandy, and packed down by horses. As you walk the loop, you’ll see several trails going left deeper into the canyon. A few paths on the right go out to other park entrances. Most of the trail is walled in by tall manzanita bushes, some up to six foot high, but as you move down into the canyon, you’ll walk into a forest of small gnarled oaks.

You may be surprised by the wildlife. I flushed a flock of wild turkeys that made me jump. Be watchful for four-legged animals, too. The park is a popular place to ride horses and walk dogs.

The trail takes you uphill through a eucalyptus grove with a nice view of Prunedale. As you circle back to the east, the views open across the park and out to Moss Landing and the Pacific Ocean. A right fork leads to a horse-trailer parking area, but staying on the main trail to the left takes you past a gate, several RV sites, and baseball fields to the soccer field and back to your car.

Royal Oaks County Park
And now for dessert. Our final stop is Monterey County’s oldest regional park. Driving just three miles from Manzanitia Park, you continue south on Castroville Boulevard, turn left on San Miguel Canyon Road, right on Echo Valley Road, and left on Maher Road to Royal Oaks Park.

Deserving its name, this 122-acre gem occupies a small grassy-green valley filled with coastal live oaks. The trees are beautifully pruned, the grass is cut, and the entrance road and parking area are free of leaf litter. Perhaps it was the $8 weekend fee ($6 during the week), but on a sunny spring afternoon, I was the only visitor. More people should enjoy this park. Then again, maybe obscurity protects its beauty.

As I entered the park, it reminded me of the larger, more rustic Joseph D. Grant County Park. The road passes through wide, green lawns dotted with large elegant oaks and shaded picnic areas. Although well-designed to handle hundreds of visitors, on this day it was quiet and empty.

I chose the Woodland Loop, a one-mile path through oak forest. And what a path. Rather than the hard- packed dirt of mountain trails or the uneven duff of a redwood forest, the pathway was a carpet of grass. More than beautiful, it was kind to an old hiker’s feet. At a T-section, I took a short detour to the right to visit a vista point. The afternoon haze made the view mildly disappointing, but the comfortable bench was worth the walk.

I retraced my steps back to the intersection, and then continued on the Woodland Loop, but instead of turning right to complete the loop, I extended my hike by continuing on Oak Ridge Trail, turning left on Chico, right on Pine Meadow, to walk through a large grassy meadow, right on Hermosa, and left on Echo Trail. Back on the main road, it was a short walk to my car.

I drove back past Manzanita Park and Elkhorn Slough to downtown Moss Landing where I finished my expedition with fish and chips in the garden courtyard of the Haute Enchilada restaurant. The food was good, but the day was even better.