Elkhorn Slough is an estuary located on the Monterey Bay in Northern California. It’s one of the best places to kayak in the San Francisco Bay Area if you’re looking for calm waters teeming with wildlife. Follow this guide for kayaking in Elkhorn Slough for everything you need to know.
We recently purchased an inflatable kayak to explore the coastal waters of the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Unfortunately, only 15% of the historical wetlands and estuaries in the area remain, which includes Elkhorn Slough. Elkhorn Slough is the second largest estuary in California, located between the cities of Santa Cruz and Monterey on the Monterey Bay.
With so few estuaries remaining, places like Elkhorn Slough are an important part of the coastal ecosystem, providing an essential habitat for migrating birds, fish, marine mammals, and the adorably playful Southern sea otters. Starting at Moss Landing, the mouth of the estuary, there are about six miles of navigable waterway that is perfect for kayaking. The calm waters make for a relaxing place to paddle where you can enjoy the scenery and spot hundreds of birds and other animals. This guide has all the information you need to plan a day kayaking in Elkhorn Slough.
Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough
What to bring with you
Kayak – You can BYO kayak, or rent one from a local shop at Moss Landing. If you don’t have your own kayak yet but want one, we recommend getting an inflatable kayak. We don’t have room to store a regular kayak, and rentals really start to add up. An inflatable kayak is both cost-effective and space-efficient. If you’re looking for a tandem inflatable kayak, we like this one – you can also check out this list of recommendations by a kayak expert.
Type III Life Vests – In California, all children under the age of 13 on any moving recreation vessel (kayaks included!) are required to wear a life vest. You are also required to carry a life vest for each adult on board your craft. For kayaking, you’ll need a Type III life vest.
If you’re renting, life vests will be provided for you. If you need to purchase them, Body Glove has a great selection of Type III life jackets in infant through adult sizes.
Reusable water bottle – You’ll likely be spending a few hours kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, so make sure to bring a reusable water bottle and stay hydrated.
Sun protection – It gets pretty bright out on the water, so you’ll want a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. We really like this mineral sunscreen.
Where to park and launch your kayak
There are two places to park and launch a kayak at Elkhorn Slough: Moss Landing, where the estuary meets the ocean, and Kirby Park, about a few miles inland near the start of the estuary There are no spots for landing other than the starting locations of Moss Landing and Kirby Park.
If you are renting, all of the kayak rental shops are at Moss Landing, so you’ll be starting from there.
Starting at Moss Landing
Parking and Permit for a kayak costs $15 for the day at Moss Landing.
Several shops offer kayak rentals and guided tours. Rates are around $40 for a single and $70 for a double for a half day. I haven’t used either shop as we brought our own kayak, but both of these get great reviews on Yelp: Kayak Connection, Monterey Bay Kayaks.
Starting at Kirby Park
Parking is free at Kirby Park. There is a parking lot that fits 20 or so cars next to the dock where you can launch your kayak. This area is somewhat secluded and car break-ins have been reported in this lot, so make sure not to leave any valuables in your car. Kirby Park is about a 4.5 mile paddle inland from the mouth of Elkhorn Slough.
Map of Elkhorn Slough
Mind the tides
If you are bringing your own kayak, you can start at either location. I recommend picking a starting point based on the tides, so you’re not trying to paddle against the current. You can check current tide tables here.
If the tide is going from low to high, the tide is going to be pushing water into the estuary, so you’re going to want to be kayaking into the estuary and away from the ocean. When it’s going from high to low, the tide will pull you back towards the ocean, so try to plan on kayaking this direction if you don’t want to battle the tides.
The main channel of the estuary is deep enough for paddling regardless of the tide, but the side channels can drain and become nothing but thick mud. Mind the depth so you don’t get stuck! We explored a side channel while kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, but ended up paddling back out the way we came in as the water levels started dropping and it didn’t seem like there was another outlet back into the main channel.
Check the weather
Wind can pick up, especially in the afternoon, so check the weather before you head out for a paddle.
Wildlife in Elkhorn Slough
Elkhorn Slough and the surrounding area provide a variety of habitats, including the sandy beaches lining Monterey Bay to the marshes and mudflats in the Slough. This makes the wildlife viewing in Elkhorn Slough impressive in both its numbers and diversity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many birds in my life! When viewing wildlife, make sure to give plenty of room to sea otters, harbor seals, and nesting birds. If you want a close up photo, you’ll have to bring a fairly long lens.
The Moss Landing area is one of the best places to see the Southern sea otter. These otters were once thought to be hunted to extinction by fur hunters in the 1700 and 1800s. They were rediscovered in the 1930s near Big Sur, and through conservation efforts, you can now find these otters all along the coast of California. A population of over one hundred otters calls Elkhorn Slough and Monterey Bay home. Most of the otters tend to stay near the ocean, though we did spot a few that made their way further up into the estuary. Come in the spring to see seal and otter pups. You can check out what the otters are up to on the live Otter Cam here.
Bird watching is good year-round, but the best time is in fall and winter. Kayaking at Elkhorn Slough is a great way to go bird watching as you can slowly glide by the marshy flats where birds rest and forage. You’ll also see hundreds of birds fly overhead!
Elkhorn Slough is an important stop along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory route for at least one billion birds every year. Spot egrets, herons, gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and so many more types of birds. Avid birders regularly log bird sightings here, so you can get a good idea of what you might see. The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve website also has more information about birding around Elkhorn Slough.
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