Elkhorn Slough Reserve

  • Visitor center
  • Picnic
  • Accessible Restrooms
  • Accessible Parking


  • Visitor center
  • Picnic
  • Accessible Restrooms
  • Accessible Parking


1700 Elkhorn Road, Watsonville, CA, 95076
Monterey/Santa Cruz
Info: (831) 728-2822
Trails and visitor center: Wed.-Sun., 9 am-5 pm
Not allowed, service animals OK
Last Visited:
September 2007
This 1,400-acre reserve protects wetlands and uplands for scientific research, public education, and visitor enjoyment. Five miles of steep trails over rough terrain lead through oak woodlands and grasslands to viewpoints overlooking wetlands and the main channel of Elkhorn Slough.

Only the short Overlook Trail is considered accessible. It leads from the visitor center to an overlook with sweeping views of the slough complex. Other dirt and grassy trails, especially Parson's Slough Overlook Trail, may be accessible to motorized wheelchairs and manual chair riders with good upper body strength, if they can handle a rough ride. Parson's Slough offers some of the best bird-watching in Monterey County. Thousands of shorebirds stop here on their annual migration along the Pacific Flyway.

Docent-led tours, offered Saturdays and Sundays at 10 am and 1 pm, may be at least partly accessible, depending on your abilities. Call for more information. No reservations needed. To prevent the spread of sudden oak death, reserve staff members spray wheelchair tires with an antiseptic.

Visitor center: Exhibits demonstrate water flow through the watershed and tidal effects. Other displays feature marsh bird specimens and flowers found blooming that week on the reserve. Docents have access to spotting scopes and will help visitors with them. 

Trails and Pathways

Elkhorn Slough Overlook Trail
Trailhead Location:
Behind visitor center
Trail Length:
Under one mile total
Typical Width:
4 ft. & above
Typical Grade:
Typical Terrain:
Trail Overview: From the visitor center, follow the paved main trail .25 miles through grassy fields to an overlook atop a knoll with expansive views of the slough. There’s a lowered telescope, but the height, which is not adjustable, may not work for some wheelchair riders, so binoculars are highly recommended. 
More Info: Asphalt is slightly worn and bumpy in places
Five Fingers Loop Trail
Trailhead Location:
From the visitor center, follow the paved main trail less than .25 miles. Look for the trail marker on the left.
Trail Length:
2-4 total miles
Typical Width:
4 ft. & above
Typical Grade:
Mostly gentle
Typical Terrain:
Moderately Firm
Trail Overview: The first half-mile is lined on both sides with coast live oak, then opens up to grassy meadows and gently rolling hills. Listen for birdsong amongst the whispering grasses. In another half-mile you come to a signpost where you can go right to follow the loop or continue straight another one-third mile down a steep grade to Parson’s Slough Overlook. The overlook is on a point with an expansive view over water on three sides. Wading birds and ducks were plentiful on our visit. Backtracking to the loop, we saw a kite attack a hawk that had ventured too close to its nest in one of the tall eucalyptus trees that dot the hillside. Binoculars are an asset, as overlooks are high above sea level. The remaining mile of the loop dips and climbs past a eucalyptus grove. At one point tall grasses obscure the views from a wheelchair, shifting one’s attention instead to the critters rustling about in the grass. The climb back to the visitor center is steep.
More Info: Sand may be an issue in some spots. The trail will be impassable in wet-weather months. The rough terrain may be problematic for people sensitive to jostling. The grade to continue out to Parson's Slough Overlook is steep. After finishing the loop and connecting back to the main trail, there is a very steep grade to return to the visitor center. Grasses cover the trail but are kept mowed. In April, we found this trail uncomfortably rough but otherwise usable.

Accessibility Features

The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Accessible Parking:
Yes – designated accessible parking, van accessible, firm, level or slope no greater than 2%;

At visitor center

Accessible Restroom:
Yes – At visitor center

Accessible Picnic Table:
Yes – firm & stable path to tables, firm & stable surface, 27" or greater knee clearance

Accessible Visitor Center:

Other Things of Interest:
We learned at the visitor center that some wheelchair riders have hiked the South Marsh Loop Trail (2.2 miles), which drops steeply to the marsh at its entrance, then travels along the water's edge. Except for the first steep descent, it is mostly level hard-packed dirt.

You can also experience the slough by water. Launch sites for kayaks and other small craft are at Kirby Park and Moss Landing Harbor. Elkhorn Slough Safari (831-633-5555) offers guided tours from Moss Landing Harbor in a pontoon boat. You need to be able to transfer to a seat and leave your wheelchair on shore or in your vehicle.

Good to Know:
Elkhorn Slough is California's second-largest estuary and attracts wildlife, especially birds, in impressive numbers. Experts have counted 32,000 individual birds in a single day, making the slough, according to the Audubon Society, "a premiere birding spot."

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