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What is the Elkhorn Slough, and Where is it Located?

The Elkhorn Slough is a 7-mile-long estuary and tidal slough located in Monterey Bay, California.

Known nationally as a pristine ecological treasure, The Elkhorn Slough spans over 45,000 acres (5,000 of which are protected by The Nature Conservancy) and provides essential habitat for countless species of birds, marine animals, and plants.

Together, The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Elkhorn Slough Foundation collaborate with community agencies and governments to protect and preserve the slough’s critical habitats. Currently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) manages the reserve.

How Was Elkhorn Slough Formed?

Elkhorn Slough is part of an extensive estuarine network, and the area’s evolution is inexorably linked to sea-level changes.

At the time of the last glacial period, the sea level in the Monterey area was about 120 m lower than it is today, which allowed a freshwater river to flow through the heart of Elkhorn Valley, out to Monterey Bay.

Approximately 18,000 years ago, the earth’s glaciers began to melt, causing rapid worldwide sea level rises. As sea levels rose, ocean water from the Monterey Bay was forced up into the mouths of Moro Cojo and Elkhorn sloughs, converting what used to be freshwater streambeds to tidal inlets, vibrant with marine life, including clams and oysters.

About 8,000 years ago, the influx of ocean water decreased slightly, allowing heavy sediment to accumulate in the tidal wetlands, creating an expansive environment of mudflats and salt marshes.

Today, Elkhorn Slough and similar seasonal estuary environments provide essential habitat that supports a rich and diverse mixture of marine life, including mammals, invertebrates, fishes, birds, and plants.

These areas also provide critical recreational opportunities for local and visiting nature lovers who want to experience the beauty of the Monterey Bay area.

winter kayaking in the slough
sea otter elkhorn slough

What is Unique About Elkhorn Slough?

There’s so much to love about Elkhorn Slough! Here are a few of our favorite facts about the area:

  • According to NOAA, Elkhorn slough provides critical habitat for more than 550 species of invertebrates, 135 species of migratory birds, and 100 species of fish.
  • Elkhorn Slough’s salt marsh is the second largest in California, after San Francisco Bay.
  • California has lost more than 90% of its estuaries, which makes the Elkhorn Slough even more precious.
  • According to California Marine Protected Areas (CMPA), there is even more life below the surface of the slough than there is above: experts estimate that one cubic foot of mud from the slough contains about 500 billion bacteria, 500 million diatoms, 50,000 protozoa, 50,000 worms, 5,000 tiny crustaceans (including crabs and shrimp), and 40 clams.
  • Elkhorn Slough contains several essential, threatened habitats, including coastal prairie areas, maritime chaparral, alive oak woodlands, grasslands, and coastal sage scrub.
  • The area, which is famous for its biodiversity, has been recognized by the Ramsar Convention as a “wetland of international importance.”
  • The Elkhorn Slough Reserve is one of only 30 areas in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. These sites are federally protected for water-quality monitoring, education, long-term research, and coastal stewardship.
kayaking bird tour

What Kind of Animals Live in the Slough?

animals in elkhorn slough

Because the Slough’s habitat is so unique, it is a hotspot for seals, migratory birds, marine mammals, fish, and the endangered California Southern Sea Otter.

Each day, hundreds of sea otters gather to rest, groom, hunt for clams, and rear their pups in the Elkhorn Slough’s protected waters.

The Southern Sea Otter isn’t the only endangered species living in Elkhorn Slough. In fact, the area is home to at least four other threatened or endangered species:

The California brown pelican, the California least tern, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, and the American peregrine falcon.

The area is also home to a stunning assortment of migratory birds that hunt and gather in the mudflats and wetlands. As such, Elkhorn Slough has been named a “Globally Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society and the American Birding Conservancy.

Why Should I Visit The Elkhorn Slough?

The Elkhorn Slough is one of the nation’s top 10 wildlife viewing destinations. With over six miles of navigable waterway inland from Monterey Bay.

No other tidal estuary of its beauty and magnitude exists along the coastline today, making it a must-see if you visit the Central Coast.

The Elkhorn Slough is a kayaker’s paradise with calm waters, limited large vessel traffic, and wildlife encounters around every bend.

elkhorn slough

When is it Best to Kayak at Elkhorn Slough?

kayaking in the slough

The Elkhorn Slough is full of wildlife all year round, and seal and otter pups are abundant in spring. Spring also boasts green hillsides and vibrant wildflowers for an excellent picture backdrop on your kayaking adventure.

Summer is a popular time in the Slough because our temperate weather makes for a perfect retreat from the inland valley heat.

Our best weather arrives in the Fall season when the summer marine fog layer lifts, and we have calm, sunny, warm days through October. We can have beautiful weather sporadically all the way into December and January, so keep your eyes on the rain forecast for plenty of wonderful opportunities to paddle in idyllic conditions with zero crowds during these months.

Birdwatching becomes more exciting in the Fall/Winter months. Winter also brings gorgeous sunsets and fewer crowds.

How to Dress for Kayaking at Elkhorn Slough

How you dress for your kayak adventure depends on the season.

In warm or hot weather, we recommend wearing the following:

  • A UV-blocking, long-sleeved shirt
  • A sun hat with a brim wide enough to protect your face, ears, and neck
  • Polarized sunglasses with an attached retainer so they don’t fall into the water
  • Swimsuit bottoms or shorts made of non-binding, non-cotton material
  • Sunscreen
  • Sandals or water shoes

In the fall or winter season, we recommend wearing the following:

  • A lightweight, sweat-wicking, long-sleeve shirt
  • A sun hat with a wide brim or a beanie if it’s chilly enough
  • Polarized sunglasses with an attached retainer
  • Sunscreen (yes, even on cloudy days!)
  • Light shell pants made from moisture-resistant material
  • Sandals, water shoes or neoprene kayaking booties
  • A light fleece jacket or vest
  • A raincoat, depending on weather conditions.

No matter what time of the year you go kayaking, you should always wear a properly-fitted PFD. Make sure to wear it over your base layer and add additional layers on top of it, so you never have to take the PFD off on the water.

winter kayaking

Should I Take A Tour Or Rent?

family adventure kayak tour in elkhorn slough

All Kayak Connection guides are talented naturalists with tons of knowledge about the local environment, in addition to being skilled kayakers with rescue training.

On a kayak tour in the Elkhorn Slough, a guide can point out animals and interesting features that you likely would have paddled right by without noticing during a rental excursion. They’re also able to tell the story of the Slough, and explain the ways in which all the creatures are interconnected to form a beautiful ecosystem. They can also help make your trip more memorable by adding a bit of personality and fun and lending a local’s advice towards the rest of your journey.

Renting a kayak in Elkhorn Slough gives you the freedom to choose your own pace and explore to your heart’s desire and can be a terrific way to get in a workout or completely relax – it’s all up to you.

What Are The Current Conditions, And How Should I Prepare For My Trip?

Every employee working at Kayak Connection will know the current conditions and help you plan your adventure. Please ask them about how both the tide and the wind will influence your paddling on that day.

The Elkhorn Slough can look very different given the changing tidal conditions. The main channel is always accessible, but there are fun tidal creeks that need at least two feet of water for a kayak to paddle through them.

Strong afternoon winds (often 15 to 20 knots), especially in the Spring, can make paddling more difficult. Plan your trip to take advantage of the favorable winds and currents.

shorebirds in their winter habitats

How Can I Protect The Elkhorn Slough And The Wildlife I See?

taking-pictures-while-kayaking

Do not approach wildlife too closely. If an animal changes its behavior or appears startled by your presence, you are too close to that animal and should paddle away. Remember, certain species, like sea otters and harbor seals, need to spend a good amount of their time resting and not being disturbed by kayakers for their health and well-being.

Maintain a safe, respectful distance while paddling in the Elkhorn Slough. Please do not land on mud banks or disturb resting seals or sea lions. If you bring water bottles or snacks on your kayak, please pack your trash out and dispose of it in the Kayak Connection yard area.

What Type Of Kayak Should I Rent?

Kayak Connection rents both sit-on-top and closed-decked kayaks in the Elkhorn Slough. We’re one of the few outfitters on the west coast to offer rental closed-deck kayaks. This difference allows our customers to experience a unique sea kayaking adventure that they won’t find at our competitor’s locations.

The advantages of closed-decked kayaks are that they are much more efficient and they keep customers warmer and dryer than a standard sit-on-top kayak. Our double closed-deck kayaks are all equipped with rudders to help for easier maneuvering in windy conditions.

Sit-on-top kayaks are typically more stable, maneuverable, and beginner friendly. We offer both double and single sit-on-top options. They’re a great choice for someone that might be a bit nervous or for all experience levels on a gorgeous, sunny day.

Both our closed-deck and sit-on-top kayaks are quite stable, with plenty of room to store snacks, water, and extra equipment that you may wish to bring with you on your paddle.

Try both options and see which fits your style of paddling adventure.

kayak safety tips

Have other questions about the Elkhorn Slough?

Just give us a call or send us a message to reach one of our friendly staff and we’ll be happy to help.