Election Section

Elkhorn Slough: Restored and Brimming with Life By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

Friday July 01, 2005

From the Elkhorn Slough Overlook I watch the sunlight reflecting off the estuary waters, the glistening mudflats and the steep, corrugated roof of the open barn. To the north is the North Marsh rookery, home to nesting egrets and herons. Surrounding me are tall, multicolored native grasses amid the colors of wildflowers. Most distinct are the sounds—a soft cacophony of birdcalls and songs, almost joyful. A vision of nature. 

This vision could have been far different. During the 1960s and ‘70s, developers were ready to build hundreds of condos around a public marina, an oil refinery and nuclear power plant, all bisected by Highway 1. Instead, thanks to the Porter family, the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Packard family, over 7,000 acres of land is now protected and restored. A vision worth fighting for. 

The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses seven miles of waterway from the center of Monterey Bay along the largest salt marsh in California, a total of 1400-acres. It attracts more bird species than anywhere else in California among its landscapes of oak woodlands, tidal creeks and freshwater marshes. Committed to restoration, research and education, Elkhorn Reserve warrants a visit, on its own, or as a side trip while visiting the Monterey Peninsula. 

I began a recent visit at the visitor center, where award-winning exhibits provided background and a visual overview of the reserve. Staffed by helpful volunteers, ready to answer questions, point out hikes on the trail map or refer you to seasonal activities, the visitor center will set the scene. An eye-catching exhibit is the nine-times-larger-than-life model, “The Unseen Slough.” Who knew just how much diverse life mud supports? Trap doors at different levels reveal hidden residents—sculpin, fat innkeeper worms and moon snails at home in mud whose color changes with depth. “Slough Check-up” uses the analogy of visiting the doctor to analyze the health of the slough. By monitoring factors like the rhythm of tides, diversity of species, movement of water and lab tests on pH and salinity a diagnosis can be made.  

My favorite exhibit was a series of labeled glass jars displaying freshly picked wildflowers in bloom, more satisfying than a photograph or drawing. I knew just what to look for as I followed the trails: white yarrow, yellow and black tidy tips, golden brodiaea and Italian pink thistle. 

It was easy to be tempted by the broad assortment of nicely displayed goodies in the Gift Center, especially the leather tooled journals, purple and yellow Cosmic Center of the Universe T-shirts and Wild Byrd earrings. Gift possibilities were endless, but it was time to hit the trail. 

Outside I bathed my boots to prevent the spread of Sudden Oak Death, admiring the mud-daubed nests of barn swallows under the wide eaves of the visitor center. The trail led gently down toward the slough, exposed at low tide. As it rimmed the shore, past rich landscapes of marsh, sand dunes, coastal prairie, sage scrub and chaparral, I saluted the mild Mediterranean climate in which they all thrive. 

Heading toward the rookery pond, I passed hillsides blanketed with the bright colors of hemlock and mustard, hearing the distinctive calls of red-winged blackbirds and California quail. The fog was breaking and the air was scented with the tang of salt and a mysterious plant that always reminds me of dirty gym socks—unforgettable. A tunnel of lichened oak branches above me curved back and forth in interesting patterns, their bark decorated with concentric circles of woodpecker holes. Thick undergrowth of dark green vinca sheltered in their shade. I could have been almost anywhere along California’s coast; the surrounding landscape seemed a close friend. 

Below the barn, I approached the South Marsh. Crossing the bridge I looked for small leopard sharks that raise their young in the protected waters below. The calls of Canada geese urged me out onto the boardwalk, carrying me far out over the mudflats. Now an expert in the “Unseen Slough,” I spotted clues of the life below: thick strands of chartreuse algae, red and green pickleweed, the egg collars of moon snails, fecal pellets of innkeeper worms and the siphon tracks of bent neck clams—just like the display showed. The peaceful South Marsh is one of the restoration projects undertaken by the reserve. A vastness of wildlife is now thriving on land diked for pasture for forty years. California has lost over 90 percent of its wetlands, making Elkhorn Slough all that much more vital.  

Continuing my hike, I read interpretive boards describing other restoration projects in progress. Four species of native grasses are being grown in different combinations, after a massive effort to remove non-native grass. Coastal shrubs and oak understory plants have also been re-introduced and provide a natural habitat along the Five Fingers and Long Valley Loop trails which lead south to the Wildlife Blind.  

My diagnosis of the Slough’s health put it in the top 10 percent. Constantly undergoing change, slough organisms must be able to adapt to these changes. Indicators were good. The temperature was crisp and the air pungent. Everywhere flora was thick and green; flowers were bright with color. A rich variety of bird life was plentiful and, according to their songs, in good health. With no clogged arteries, a steady rhythm of tides moved veins of clear water through the estuary, where egrets watched for their next meal. A clean bill of health. 

The view from the Overlook will change with the season. Home to 340 species of birds, 100 of fish and 400 of plants, any time of year will reward you with abundant wildlife and a time to reflect. Time to reflect on the value of commitment, the importance of preservation, and the joy of recognizing and appreciating the land in its natural state. 


Elkhorn Slough is located halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey. In San Jose, take Hwy. 101 south, turn off onto Hwy. 156 west. Exit at Hwy. 1 and continue north to Moss Landing. At the power plant turn right onto Dolan Road. Go 3.5-miles on Dolan Road, then turn left onto Elkhorn Road. After 1.9-miles turn left into the Elkhorn Reserve gate.  

Driving time approximately 2 hours. 


Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve 

1700 Elkhorn Rd., Watsonville. (831) 728-2822, www.elkhornslough.org.  

Open Wed-Sun 9-5 p.m. Day use fee $2.50 for 16 years and above. 

Docent-led tours every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m..