Who would ever think that visiting an area where mud is a dominant feature could be filled with fascinating creatures? Creatures that are linked to an intricate food web feeding seals, sea otters, migratory birds, and an entire host of other marine animals and plants.
The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is a protected wetland gem, home to eelgrass, pickleweed, alkali heath, and yes, mud flats. At low tide, these flats extend from the edges of the slough for hundreds of yards, often lined with bright green algae. Hundreds of migratory and resident birds forage here, probing the mud for worms, clams, and other invertebrates.
Elkhorn Slough is close enough to the Bay Area to be explored in a day. This unique 1700-acre reserve is a seasonal estuary and part of thirty protected research reserves nationwide, dedicated to protecting coastal wetlands. This special habitat is a welcome respite from the urban environment of San Jose and its surrounding cities.
The entrance to the slough starts at Moss Landing, a quaint, small harbor located on Hwy 1, just north of Monterey. Elkhorn Slough winds inland like the curve of an elk’s antler, for seven miles to Hudson’s Landing near the city of Watsonville. It is the largest area of tidal salt marsh in California outside of San Francisco Bay. The rich diversity of this productive seasonal estuary allows a large population of plants, marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and migratory birds to thrive.
The reserve includes 5 miles of easily-traveled trails that wind through a variety of habitats, including oak woodland, pickleweed marshes, and mudflats. The view from the observation area allows you to see the great expanse of this wetland and the surrounding hills. Here you can look through telescopes and possibly view nesting herons in distant eucalyptus trees or watch as California Brown pelicans soar up and down over the tidal waters of the slough. Here are five more reasons to visit this unique coastal region.
1. View Marine Mammals Up Close
If you are energetic and so inclined, you may rent a kayak or sign up with a guide to paddle up the slough. Kayak Connection is located near the mouth of the slough in Moss Landing and they will be happy to outfit you for the trip. Paddling in a kayak enables you to get quite close to the harbor seals and otters that frequent the slough, as well as see the heron rookery and perhaps a leopard shark or bat ray. Sea otters enjoy the protected nature of the slough and here they are safe from their main predators. They often hang out in large groups called rafts and if you are lucky, you may see them diving for crabs and clams, then rolling on their backs, placing the food item on their chest, and proceeding to enjoy.
There are also plenty of harbor seals, usually hauled out upon the shore, enjoying a snooze after a night of diving for fish.
If you would rather sit back and enjoy the scenery and wildlife without a paddle, there are tour boats that will take you on a flat pontoon boat with a naturalist on board to give you detailed information about what you are viewing. Check out the Elkhorn Slough Safari, which has an office and gift store in Moss Landing. You will need to make reservations for the tour.
Pro Tip: If you choose to paddle on your own, make sure you check the tides because it is difficult to make your way back against the combination of wind and strong tides.
2. Tour The Elkhorn Slough Reserve
There are docent-led tours held every weekend and on some weekdays during the summer. The tours start at the visitor center off Elkhorn Road where parking is free. If you choose to walk the trails with a docent, you will learn about the history of the reserve and about the steamer boats that once frequented the slough, picking up bales of wheat from local farmers and then traveling back out to the ocean to load them on clipper ships that ultimately headed for San Francisco.
If you decide to walk on your own, I recommend the trail out to Hummingbird Island, which takes you over the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad built in 1872 using 200 Chinese laborers.
Head up the wooden steps past two redwood trees that once shaded the Empire Hunting Club. In the early 1900s, businessmen from San Francisco would board the train and head for Elkhorn Slough to stay at the club and hunt for ducks. On the far side of the island, you can view kayakers venturing up the channel and you will likely see hundreds of shorebirds, such as willets, marbled godwits, sandpipers, and above you, gulls and terns, swooping and diving for fish.
Heading back, peek in the old cow barn which once housed a dairy, and depending on the time of year, you may see Great Horned or Barn owls nesting in large wooden boxes on platforms in the rafters. Return to the visitor center and enjoy a packed lunch at the picnic tables outside where you may see Tree Swallows diving for insects or Western Bluebirds perched on a fence.
Pro Tip: If you are interested in birds, there is a birding tour led by an expert on the first Saturday of each month. Call ahead to reserve a spot.
3. Have Lunch And Shop At Moss Landing
There are several good restaurants in the town of Moss Landing and it is a great place to purchase fresh fish, sometimes right off the boats from local fishermen. If you decide to go, stroll over the bridge where you can view some of the fishing boats and even spot an otter or two. You are also very close to Moss Landing State Beach where there is plenty of free parking and a lovely stretch of beach to walk upon. If you are hungry, I highly recommend Phil’s Fish Market and restaurant for an excellent fare of seafood, including fried calamari and clam chowder. They also sell a variety of fresh fish.
This restaurant is extremely popular and seating is on a first-come, first serve basis. Be prepared for long lines, but it is worth the wait. If you are hankering for Mexican fare, there are two good restaurants nearby and both take reservations. The Haute Enchilada is a small eating establishment with a lovely garden and has both indoor and outdoor dining. The menu is excellent. The other place is named The Whole Enchilada, which seats more people in a very pleasant indoor setting. They have an extensive menu including enchiladas, tacos, chili rellenos, taco salads, shrimp quesadillas, and highly recommended margaritas.
Pro Tip: I recommend visiting this area on a weekday, as the crowds will be reduced.
4. Head Towards Castroville For Local Artichokes
If you are in the mood for some fresh local produce, including artichokes, you have come to the right part of the coast as Castroville, just a few miles south of Moss Landing is considered the Artichoke Capital of the World. There are fruit and vegetable stands between Moss Landing and the city of Castroville, an easy pull-off as you head south.
Depending on the time of year, you can browse the stands for strawberries, avocadoes, and local veggies. If you choose to visit Castroville, there are antique and thrift stores to browse, and a bar/club named after Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe), who was the first queen of the Artichoke Festival in 1948. If you like French-fried artichokes, head to the restaurant named The Giant Artichoke for all kinds of artichoke menu choices.
Pro Tip: Visit Pezzini Farms southwest of Moss Landing for artichokes, produce, sauces, dressings, honey, and great information about preparing the flower of the artichoke thistle for a delicious snack.
5. Stroll Moss Landing State Beach
Moss Landing State Beach is a lovely strand of shore with plenty of beachfront to meander and examine whatever the tide brings to your feet. There are often halves of clam shells, sand dollars, and pieces of kelp left by the tide. Here you can view the sweep of Monterey Bay with Santa Cruz to the north and Monterey to the south. Don’t be surprised if you spot seals swimming on the crest of waves or see a line of California Brown pelicans flying in perfect formation with their large wings spread on either side. In the winter, a favorite spot for surfers is the north side of the jetty, as it is a challenging shore break. Although the Monterey Bay water is too cold for all but the heartiest of swimmers, kick your shoes off and let the frothy water tickle your toes.
Pro Tip: The waves can be strong and the undertow powerful, so be on your guard.
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