Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

visitor center exhibits
boardwalk through estuary

Estuaries: a nursery ground, a resting place, a smorgasbord; where rivers meet the sea. If you're a nature enthusiast you've probably heard this description before. But what exactly does it mean? And what in the world is a slough anyway? A visit to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is a great way to find all this out, and much more.

Elkhorn Slough is a seven-mile arm of the Monterey Bay located half way between the cities of Santa Cruz and Monterey. This arm has a bend in it as it extends inland, and at the "elbow" lies the reserve. The reserve is owned and managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and it operates in partnership with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the local, non-profit Elkhorn Slough Foundation. It is one of 22 national estuarine research reserves around the country that serve as representative estuaries for research, education and habitat stewardship. It was designated as an ecological reserve by the Fish and Game Commission in 1980.

The approximately 1,700 acres that comprise the reserve include salt marsh, mud flat, freshwater pond, oak woodland, and grassland habitats. A stroll on any one of the three loop trails reveals a variety of both wetland and upland wildlife. It is not uncommon for a black-tailed deer to be foraging in the oaks while a grey smoothhound shark is gliding through the backwater shallows just below in search of a meal of mud crabs.

For more information, visit ElkhornSlough.org or call the reserve at (831) 728-2822 or the Central Region Fresno office at (559) 243-4005 x151.

Recreational Opportunities

Wildlife Viewing  Hiking Trails Information Kiosk or Visitor Center Restrooms Either Guided or Self-guided Interpretive Nature Tours Disabled Access - call for details

Hours: Open Wednesday - Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Activities: wildlife viewing, hiking, and nature tours

Elkhorn Slough is renowned for its outstanding birding opportunities especially during fall, winter, and spring. But before you hike, you will want to stop in to the Visitor Center to see The Unseen Slough!

Visitor Center and Main Overlook are fully accessible. Trails range in length from just under a mile to a little over two miles. Along the way visitors will find marsh boardwalks, a wildlife viewing blind, and scenic overlooks to enhance their wildlife watching.

Docent-led walks available every Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Groups of 10 or more are encouraged to schedule a separate tour. Binoculars and bird books available to borrow at no cost.

NOTE: Visitors are responsible for knowing and complying with all regulations pertaining to the use of Department lands.

Refer to the Public Uses on State and Federal Lands section of the Waterfowl, Upland Game, and Public Use Regulations (PDF) booklet for both statewide and property-specific regulations.

no drones icon
You may not operate a drone on CDFW Lands without a Special Use Permit.


Each year, about 5,000 students experience this outdoor classroom as part of a school field trip. Teachers wanting to be an Elkhorn Slough naturalist must attend a two-day workshop. Afterward, they can choose to do a variety of field activities from plankton sampling to bird monitoring. Information about the program can be found at the Elkhorn Slough Foundation Education Program web page.

Another targeted audience for education is the coastal decision makers of the region. Topics include special status species workshops, coastal management issues as well as professional training regarding meeting facilitation. Extensive information about the program as well as a reference library to past workshops can be found at the Elkhorn Slough Foundation Coastal Training Program web page.


The Elkhorn Slough currently has a volunteer force of approximately 50 active volunteers helping with research projects, leading tours, and lending a hand to stewardship projects and maintenance needs. Volunteer training is in January and the more advanced Naturalist training continues on all Saturdays in February. More information can be viewed at the Elkhorn Slough Foundation Volunteer web page.

Map of Elkhorn slough ER - click to enlarge in new window
Click to enlarge


Central Region (Region 4)

Monterey County

1700 Elkhorn Road
Watsonville, CA 95076

Directions: Hwy 101 to San Miguel Canyon Rd, left on Castroville Blvd. Right on Elkhorn Road. Reserve is 2.2 miles down Elkhorn Rd on the left.

CDFW Lands Viewer

Photo Gallery