Three words to remember at Elkhorn Slough: birds, birds, birds. From a slough-side observation point in 1983, the record was established for the most bird species (116!) seen in a single day in North America.
The birds, from snowy egrets to great blue herons to the California clapper rail, are some of the slough show-stoppers. More than 250 species have been sighted at the slough. Fat worms and fast crabs--bird food--are abundant on the mud flats.
The 1,400-acre slough, officially the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A visitors center features interpretive displays and a book/gift shop. Elkhorn Slough and its visitor center is open only Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Volunteer guides lead nature walks every Saturday and Sunday.
Three loop trails tour the slough, as well as adjacent oak woodland and grassland environments.
The reserve's two west side loop trails--Long Valley and Five Fingers--are primarily upland trails through oak-dotted grassland; they do, however, touch the slough in a couple of places.
Long Valley Loop Trail forks left from the main path leading from the visitors center. A wooden dock provides a good viewpoint. Cresting a low rise, the trail junctions with Five Fingers Loop Trail: Fork left to make a second loop. When Five Fingers Loop Trail returns to the main preserve path, you can return to the visitor center or join South Marsh Loop Trail.
South Marsh Loop Trail briefly descends, approaching the abandoned barns of the old Elkhorn Dairy, then forks left, soon crossing a footbridge over the slough. The trail passes a heron rookery and a eucalyptus woodland before angling back toward the center.
Directions to trail head: From California 1 in Moss Landing, turn east on Dolan Road and drive three miles. Turn left and drive two more miles to the reserve entrance.
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South Marsh, Long Valley, Five Fingers Loop Trails
WHERE: Elkhorn Slough.
TERRAIN: Salt marsh.
HIGHLIGHTS: Terrific bird-watching.
DISTANCE: South Marsh Loop is 3 miles; Long Valley Loop is 2 miles; Five Fingers Loop is 2 miles.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy-moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Center, 1700 Elkhorn Road, Watsonville, CA 95076; tel. (408) 728-2822.