Elkhorn is the second largest slough (pronounced slew) or tidal wetland, in California. It undulates inland for seven miles. It’s entry to the Pacific is at the Moss Landing power plant, midway between Monterey and Santa Cruz. The 700 foot tall power plant smoke stacks are the most prominent landmark for fifty miles and are visible from anywhere in the bay.
It’s by far the best spot in California to observe otters in the wild, and a very safe place to see lots of wildlife and the place many kids and adults try kayaking. You won’t find big waves, sharks or orcas, and they won’t find you either.
The slough is conservation land, a status very similar to parkland. It is open to visitors year round and you can travel on the water six miles inland and stay within the reserve’s borders. Some areas of the slough are closed to all activities, these areas are marked, and shown on the image below. Hunting and fishing are permitted in a few specific areas also. As with all saltwater in California, any land up to the high tide line is held in the commons; private landowners cannot deny you access below the high tide line. Your visit to Elkhorn will mostly restrict you to the water, the bulk of the shoreline and a few well marked channels are set aside for habitat preservation and cannot be accessed. It is worth noting that the sand beaches fronting private property (south side,see map) just east of the bridge can be accessed up to the high tide line by law, as noted.
Access and kayak rentals
You can access the slough in any boat- except personal watercraft- although the low bridge at Highway One and vast areas of very shallow water discourage all but shallow draft boats- kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, small fishing boats. One commercial tour operator takes visitors into the slough on a pontoon boat.
Kayaks can be rented by the day or hour at the Highway One end of the slough. The rental shops do not require previous experience or special training, renters are provided safety and basic kayak handling training. You can also book guided kayak tours with the shops. Many local eco-tour groups, including REI, offer guided tours of the slough.
The slough is shallow, narrow and twisty, so waves are not a problem. Currents, which can be hard to paddle against, are not usually strong enough to get boaters in trouble. You will not encounter whitewater and breaking waves are very unusual, if it’s very windy you may see very small waves restricted to the area just inside the Highway One bridge. The most dangerous area is the shipping channel where you launch; it is subject to some bay swell and boat traffic. Yield to any boat larger than you, the channel is narrow and they can’t safely leave it. The water is cold, in the fifties, but injuries and accidents are rare.
There are two spots to launch small boats- Kirby Park and the public boat ramp at Moss Landing. The most common way to enter is the Moss Landing ramp, it serves ocean going power boats also. There is a fee for launching and parking at Moss Landing, as well as a boat wash and permanent toilets. Kirby has portable toilets and is more isolated.
I am often asked what is the best season to paddle the slough. Regardless of when you go observant visitors will see a large and diverse variety of wildlife, and you will always encounter sea otters. Sunshine is fairly constant between winter storms, and absent most summer days. The quality of your visit will be greatly influenced by two principal forces of nature, one you can predict and one is more variable.
The slough is tidal, which means the moon and sun’s gravitational pull raise and lower the water level- empty and fill the slough twice a day. The tidal currents in the slough can exceed three miles an hour at peak flows in mid channel. A standard recreational kayak, 14-17 feet in length, paddled by an average person without great strain moves at about three miles an hour in still air and water. If you time your paddle so a rising tide carries you into the slough, then you head back out on a falling tide you will have very little work to do. If you do the opposite- paddle against the tide both in and out it’s a very different story. Tides are very predictable, and can be forecast with great accuracy years in advance. Many paddlers enter the slough when the tide is flowing out, so they are working against the tide in at least one direction and they still have an enjoyable paddle, but it is a constant battle against the current.
Unless you know where you are it’s never a good idea to leave the main channel on a falling tide. You could get stuck in mud and have to crawl out, or wait up to five hours for the water to return. Neither option is pleasant. The largest tide range the slough sees is about nine feet.
There are two periods of large tides every month, each period lasting a few days- the full and new moons. The tidal cycle is not 24 hours in length, so the time of high and low tide changes every day. You have to consult the tide charts for the days you want to paddle for the place you want to paddle to. Currents outside the peak periods are not as strong and you can paddle against them, and use tricks like hugging the shoreline to reduce their strength. If you are looking at a graphical tide chart the steepness of the curve tells you how strong the current is. Rarely, after large winter rains there is a freshwater outflow current, but it is unusual and short duration. Large swell in the bay will have no effect on slough waters once you are a few hundred yards east of Highway One.
The other major force you have to contend with at Elkhorn- wind- is just as strong and a little harder to predict. The wind at Elkhorn changes direction and intensity seasonaly. Winter winds generally accompany storm fronts, NOAA does a good job of predicting their timing and strength. They blow south to north. I suggest casual paddlers avoid windy winter days, winds above ten miles an hour make paddling difficult. If you see whitecaps on the ocean the wind speed is above ten miles an hour.
Summer winds are somewhat cyclical; we will have a repeating pattern of a few not so windy days followed by very windy days. Summer winds flow west to east, and typically get stronger in the afternoon, so the earlier you get on the water the better. If strong winds are predicted start your paddle at the east end of the slough (Kirby), paddle to the mouth and let the wind blow you back. If you are renting it is wise to plan on a 9AM start, as soon as the shops open. When I paddle Elkhorn I try to be on the water at first light, before dawn. Many paddlers leave later and have enjoyable paddles, but summer afternoon winds are very common.
You can rent single or double kayaks, and they can be open(sometimes called Sit on Tops) or closed boats. Doubles are easier to paddle, and more fun if your group is even in number. Open boats are more stable, but half of your body will be in the wind and spray and as a consequence colder. Open boats require more effort to paddle and go a little slower. Their biggest disadvantage is the wind has more surface to grip, so they are a handful in windy conditions. Unless someone in the group is afraid of being trapped in a capsize I suggest groups go in closed deck doubles. Doubles are more stable than singles. Always get a rudder if one is available. Some boats don’t need them, but they make it easier to navigate and deal with wind should it arise. Children as young as five may enjoy the slough, often mom and dad will put a young one in the middle of a sit on top double, and as they get older they can start to handle a paddle in the front seat.
You will see harbor seals in the slough year round. You can also expect to see young California sea lions on the dock or in the channel near the entrance to the slough. They expect you and will ignore you, but it is wise to give them a wide berth. You would be hard pressed to hurt them, but if startled they could easily tip your boat, and sea lions do bite. Aquatic Park in San Francisco has a long history of sea lions biting swimmers. They are big carnivores, respect them. If I see them playing in the water near my boat I always thump the hull to let them know I am there.
You will also encounter otters. You can see pictures of them here. In the slough they are faster and more mobile than you, so they will avoid you if they want to. There is often a raft of resting male otters just inside the breakwater, you must give them a wide berth. You can be arrested if you hassle these otters, and the fines are not trivial. Any action on your part that changes their behavior is illegal. Don’t approach them, nor drift down on them.
In the slough you may encounter resting otters or mothers with babies. It is important to not disturb these animals, interrupted rest is very disruptive, increases infant mortality and contributes to poor survival rates in adults. Do not approach resting otters closer than 50 yards, nor paddle directly towards them. If an otter approaches you do not feed or touch it. Seal or otter bites should be treated by a medical professional promptly, and be reported.
Harbor seals may follow you, and rarely jump on boats if they see something that looks or smells like food, so plan accordingly. They should also not be bothered when they are resting on shore,do not approach them when they are on land. They work the night shift and daytime sleep is essential. In the water they will avoid you if they choose to do so.
The slough is a birders paradise. Shore birds, wading birds, brown and white pelicans, diving seabirds, and hawks are common visitors and residents. You can see the typical birds you will encounter here.
Brown pelicans are nearly constant visitors, provided there are fish offshore. At times they hunt here, but mostly you will see them resting at Seal Bend, as shown below.
The other and very unique set of organisms that visit the slough are deep water- open ocean- planktonic species. They are pulled in by currents and tides from the very deep water of the Monterey canyon, which starts just off of Moss Landing. This is one of the few sites in North America where deep water is found close to shore- the canyon is over a thousand feet deep a scant mile from shore. If you hang out in the main channel during a flood (approaching high) tide you may see organisms only found in deep water-things like salps, or jellies of many varieties.
Low tides open a window into invertebrates- kelp crabs, nudibranchs, and other inhabitants of eel grass beds including isopods, snails and small fish can be spotted if you are observant. You can see the slough’s hidden inhabitants here. You’ll see otters eating clams and crabs too.
The slough also gets exotics- below are a few images that illustrate this. The flamingo was an assumed escapee, he hung around for a few weeks in 2009. The Stellar’s sea lion visited in 2011, and the last image is of a humpback taken just outside the shipping channel in November of 2011, the Highway One bridge is in the background. Some old hands have seen transient (mammal eating) orcas spy hop at the seals on the visitors dock from the channel too. Lastly, if you visit the slough in December you may catch a fleeting glimpse of the illusive Christmas seal, to see him click here.