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Elkhorn Slough: Monterey Bay, California

Cruise this marine sanctuary to see otters, seals, and birds.

marsh birds feeding at Elkhorn Slough, image
Photo caption
Marsh birds congregate to feed and rest at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.


Elkhorn Slough draws little notice from most visitors lured to the California surf along Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and Monterey. That's too bad. The wetland and its neighboring wisp of a village, Moss Landing, contain many delights—from wildlife to antiquing. None should be missed.

The word slough (rhymes with true) refers to any body of water surrounded by marsh, but Elkhorn is actually a slender and salty seven-mile arm of Monterey Bay; it waxes and wanes with each tide. Rimmed by mudflats and vast mats of pickleweed, the slough annually nourishes tens of thousands of birds from the more than 340 species that settle in to feast on the crabs, clams, worms, and other tasties saturating its sandy bog. Skates and leopard sharks skirt the shore, harbor seals lounge on the muddy banks, and sea otters use the calm and fertile waters to teach their pups to dive and dig.

To spy respectfully on such creatures, start at the visitor center of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, 1,400 acres of wetland and woodland managed by the California Department of Fish and Game. For a $2.50 admission, you can scan informative exhibits or borrow binoculars and a bird book before heading out on the several miles of trails and boardwalks.

For views from the water, tour with guides from Kayak Connection or Monterey Bay Kayaks. To savor a more relaxed exploration with photo opportunities, join Elkhorn Slough Safari naturalists on a two-hour tour in their 27-foot pontoon.

After a morning of discovery, head to Moss Landing and grab a latte or Mexican seafood at the Haute Enchilada. Or check out nearby Yesterday's Books, with its rich trove of nature guides and works on California history. You can also browse more than 20 antique stores and several art studios. Later, join locals at Phil's Fish Market and Eatery for a steaming bowl of cioppino.

If the day trip stretches into night, luxuriate at the Captain's Inn, a new bed-and-breakfast that has six rooms with windows fronting the slough. Your complimentary binoculars will make it easy the next morning to spot and study more birds and seals—without ever leaving your bed.

Quick Tip
The Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery is open to the public on Fridays. Buy plants or picnic and watch the raptors. From Hwy. 1, take Struve Rd. east. 763-1207,

Photography courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.