Caspian Terns congregating on mudflats, plump pelicans plunging their beaks into the shallows for food, and southern sea otters cracking open clams — at Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest estuaries in California, I’ve paddled alongside them all. And the mudflats have always been a great place to beach your kayak near Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels, godwits, and other shorebirds.
The seven-mile-long slough provides much-needed habitat for more than 340 species of birds. The Elkhorn Slough Foundation, two state-run marine areas, and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve protect more than 8,000 acres of land and water. The slough is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area and a Site of Regional Importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
Birding it from a kayak is a tranquil and unique experience. The mudflats are crowded with shorebirds and California Brown Pelicans, and farther back are egrets and Great Blue Herons. In addition to birding by kayak, visitors can walk five miles of hiking trails in the research reserve through oak woodlands, mudflats, and other habitats. — Chuck Graham
Tidal channels, mudflats, salt marsh, fresh water, open beaches, harbor and bay, coastal dunes, grasslands, scrub, woodlands, and riparian areas.
Mostly flat with a few rolling hills. The hiking is relatively easy.
340 species. California Brown and American White Pelicans, Caspian Tern, Western Snowy, Black-bellied, and Semipalmated Plovers, Marbled Godwit, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sooty Shearwater, Canada Goose, Green- and Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Great Horned Owl, Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, and California Gulls, Elegant Tern (fall), Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Violet-green and Barn Swallows, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, Bewick’s Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wrentit, Cedar Waxwing, Wilson’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch.
When to go
October through May.
Docent-led tours Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Birding tour the first Saturday of each month at 8:30 a.m.
Tidal salt marsh protected by state and federal ownership and a non-profit foundation. Open year-round. Reserve and visitor center hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 9-5. $4 day-use fee for visitors 16 and older. Annual pass $20.75.
The only launching and landing sites for kayaks are at Moss Landing North Harbor and Kirby Park.
Moss Landing Wildlife Area
Just north of the town of Moss Landing on the east side of Hwy. 1. A short, easy trail adjacent to the main channel of the slough is a great spot to watch sea otters, harbor seals, and a slew of migrating birds.
North of reserve on Elkhorn Rd. A slough-side boardwalk is the only wheelchair-accessible trail at the slough.