Words by Haven Livingston
By mileage measures the trails are short, but a hike at Elkhorn Slough is deceptively long. Exploring the second largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California (the first is San Francisco Bay)will take time. Your pace may slow to the rhythm of bat rays feeding in the shallows, or you might even come to a complete stop as you watch statue still egrets hunting for their next meal.
Located at the midpoint of the Monterey Bay between Santa Cruz and Monterey, Elkhorn Slough is the estuarine outlet of a 30,292 acre watershed. It’s where freshwater from Carneros Creek and other seasonal flows dance with Pacific seawatein a constant tidal flux. Like all interfacesof disparate habitats, this ecotone is both home and hotel to a huge variety of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
The best starting point for exploring the five miles of trails is at the Elkhorn SloughNational Estuarine Research Reserve and visitor center. The Reserve is managed by the California Department of Fish and Game in cooperation with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Three loop trails, each with additional spur trails leading to overlooks, offer something a little different. From the visitor center, the first loop encountered isLong Valley Loop Trail. It’s about a half-mile long and stays in upland habitat of coyote brush and coastal scrub where rabbits are likely to be grazing at trail’s edge.
Long Valley Loop leads to the water’s edge for a glimpse of aquatic life within one of the Slough’s small bays.Long Valley Loop feeds directly into the slightly longer Five Finger Loop Trail with a spotting scope overlook near the beginning. As you walk under the oak trees, look for the Dusky Footed Wood Rat nests. They will be masses of sticks and leaves woven into the tree branches. While most people think of rats as being filthy animals, these clever rodents havebeen known to line the outer edges of their homes with Bay Laurel leaves – the potent aromatics of which ward off fleas.While looking up you may also catch a view of resident hawks, Kestrels, or White-tailed Kites.
Two spurs lead off Five Finger Loop Trail: one to Parson’s Slough Overlook affording a great view into an open channel of the slough, and the other housing a blind where you can settle in for serious wildlife study. Expect to see all kinds of mixed song bird flocks during fall migrationand lots of ducks on the water, the most common of which would be Buffleheads,Gadwalls, and American Widgeons. Other aquatic birds include Clarks and Western Grebes.
Exiting the Five Finger loop puts hikers on their way to the interesting and varied South Marsh Loop Trail. First stop is the old dairy barn where a quick dissection of Barn Owl pellets will tell you what the locals are munching on for a midnight snack. As the trail nears the water and crosses over a levee, historic middens of old glass milk jugs from the dairy are visible in the tidal flats.Turn west towards Hummingbird Island and you might catch the highlight attraction of rays feeding in the shallow water as you pass over a bridge. The North Marsh overview is a great viewpoint for shorebirds and there is a roosting site at the northeast corner of the loop for Cormorants, and Great Egrets and, in the evening, owls.
If the nature nut in you doesn’t get enough wildlife along the trails, (which is hard to imagine!) consider getting a different perspective. Come back for a kayak trip and a close up look at sea otters and other marine life. The Kayak Connection offers wildlife tours and equipment rental.
Entry to the Elkhorn Slough visitor center is free, but there is a $4 day use charge to walk the trails (free for those with a valid fishing or hunting license andeveryone under the age of 16).
No dogs or bikes are allowed on trails. The center and reserve are open Wednesday to Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Give yourself two to four hours, even for a two-mile hike. If you forget your binoculars, the center will lend you a set. Docent led tours are offered Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. or 1 p.m., and an Early Bird walk is the first Saturdayof every month at 8:30 a.m.
For more information, to confirmtours, or request group visits, go to ElkhornSlough.org or call (831) 728-2822. To learn more about kayaking the Elkhorn Slough check out KayakConnection.com or call (831) 724-5692.