Location: Visitor center is 3.5 miles east of Moss Landing. Take Highway 1 to Moss Landing; at the power plant, turn east onto Dolan Road; go 3.5 miles, then turn left onto Elkhorn Road; go 1.9 miles, turn left into the reserve gate.
Hours: Reserve and visitor center are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Cost: Free admission to visitor center; $2.50 day-use fee to walk the trails for ages 16 and older; children under 16 are free. Entry is free with a California hunting or fishing license. A one-year pass is $15.
More information:728-2822 or www.elkhornslough.org
Elkhorn Slough is an ecological treasure, one of the relatively few coastal wetlands remaining in California.
More than 7,000 acres of protected lands make up the slough's watershed. About half are protected or managed by the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the rest by government agencies.
Over the years, a series of settlers altered the land and the flow of the water, grazing cattle, growing crops and building dikes to irrigate them, extracting salt, adding a small port and then later the Moss Landing harbor.
In recognition of the need to protect this special place, a portion of Elkhorn Slough's land and water was designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1979 and steps were taken to begin restoring the flow of tidal waters into the marsh. The reserve, owned and managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, takes in more than 1,500 acres and includes a visitor center, picnic area and hiking trails.
The slough is home to hundreds of species of fish, marine invertebrates and plants. Birds are especially plentiful, with more than 340 species, regularly ranking the slough among the top five places in the country during the annual Audubon Society bird counts.
Among the slough dwellers are seals and sea otters, sandpipers and avocets, sole and flounder, even leopard sharks and rays. At least six threatened or endangered species are found in the slough or nearby, including the otters, least terns, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons.
Visitors can take in the slough on foot, kayak, canoe, even pontoon boat. A good starting point is the reserve's visitor center, to get the big-picture through its exhibits and experts. There are docent-led tours on weekends and a monthly bird walk. You can also go it alone, exploring on five miles of trails that cut through woodlands, around creeks and marshes.