Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough

kayaking in Elkhorn Slough

Have you ever dreamt of taking an African safari?

From the safety of a jeep, you watch wide-eyed as a leopard silently stalks unsuspecting antelopes, a pride of lions escapes the shimmering heat in the shade of an Acacia tree, and a herd of elephants, ears flapping and trunks swinging, shake the savannah as they lumber dangerously close to where you sit spellbound by the wild landscape that surrounds you.

We may not have leopards and elephants, but we do have rafts of otters, piles of harbor seals, and flocks of pterodactyl-like pelicans. And you don’t have to observe them from the confines of an off-road vehicle.

Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough is an aquatic safari where you join the animals on their turf. Otters instead of cheetahs climb onto your mode of transport and it’s the deep rumbling bellow of the California sea lion that makes you jump out of your seat.

Harbor seals bask in the sun, otters furiously clean their faces after a tasty meal of urchin, and sea lions slap their flippers, playfully splashing water just inches from the kayak.

Pelicans fly overhead, so close that you could almost reach up and touch them. Suddenly they fold in their wings and turn their beaks earthward in a graceful dive that ends with a muffled “kerplunk.” A great blue heron stands in the muddy shallows, staring intently at a fish hiding just below the surface. Your paddle catches on kelp fronds, giving you the perfect excuse to stop paddling for a moment and just take in everything around you.

Paddling out onto the slough on a clear, calm Saturday morning erases that confrontation you had with your co-worker on Friday, eases bottled up tension between you and your partner, and just generally puts life back in balance again, at least for the weekend. Exploring California’s second largest marine wetland (and it’s right here in our backyard!) requires you to focus only on paddling and observing the wildlife that swims on either side of the kayak and flies just overhead. Green rolling hills dotted with oak trees border the slough’s muddy banks and shelter you from the ocean wind.

Observe Otters and Seals Solo or with a Guide

otters at elkhorn slough

You can choose to take a self-guided tour or guided tour of the slough — no kayaking experience is necessary for either, just a love for the outdoors and the ability to swim in case a wily sea lion or overly curious otter tips over your kayak (very unlikely but possible!).

Kayak Connection and Monterey Bay Kayaks in Moss Landing both rent single and double kayaks throughout the year and provide basic instruction to those who’ve never dipped a paddle in the water. Both offer self-guided and docent guided tours. Venture Quest Santa Cruz offers guided tours of the slough that also take you out into the bay, and you can find limited kayaking tours (and other types of tours) through the actual reserve.

Kayak Connection also offers sunset tours and starlight bioluminescence tours in the summer that give you a glimpse of the slough’s nocturnal life and the bioluminescent plankton that light up the waters when disturbed by the blade of your paddle.

When to Paddle the Slough

The slough offers different wildlife viewing perks throughout the year.

  • March to May can be the windiest time of year (start your day early!) but also offers spectacular birding and the chance to see newborn seal pups.
  • June to August is more likely to be overcast but this is actually great for viewing wildlife. The winds are also calmer, the tides weaker, and the days longer so late afternoon paddles are rewarding instead of incredibly taxing.
  • September through October are the warmest months and boast the annual fall bird migration.
  • November through February offer clear days, few humans, lots of wildlife, and strong tides so pack your binoculars and check your tide charts!

Choose Your Kayak

elkhorn slough kayaks

When you make your reservation or when you arrive at your chosen rental spot, you’ll have to decide on your mode of transport: double or single kayak? Doubles are good for beginners because they’re a bit sturdier and don’t tip as easily (plus you have the added comfort of another person to blame any mishaps on). If you’re experienced or don’t want anyone messing with your paddling groove, try a single. They’re much easier to maneuver and you can pause for as long as you like next to the baby harbor seals.

What to Wear

Will you get wet? Do you have to step in the water when getting into the kayak? Is it cold out on the water? What the heck am I supposed to wear?! These are all great questions so here’s what you need to know:

You get in and out of the kayak from the dock so unless you slip on a rogue banana peel and fall into the water, your feet should stay dry. Still, if you have water sandals, wear those just in case and leave your nice leather boots at home.

The rental kayaks all have waterproof slips that go over your lap so if all goes well, you won’t get wet at all. I would, however, still suggest either packing an extra pair of pants in the car or wearing some made of a quick drying material as the slips aren’t always watertight. A waterproof windbreaker is the perfect outer layer since it can be chilly out on the water and you might get splashed by your partner’s paddle (if in a double) or by one of those wily sea lions.

You can bring extra layers on the kayak but be forewarned, they might get wet down by your feet and it’s a bit of a hassle to add or remove layers when out on the water. A hat (one that won’t fly off in the wind), sunscreen and polarized sunglasses are a must. The water reflects the sun back up onto your face, even if you’re wearing a hat, and can leave you looking like a lobster by the time you paddle back to the docks!

What to Bring

Bring snacks and water if you plan to be out for a few hours. You typically rent a kayak for up to four hours but if it’s your first time, two hours will probably be plenty. Also if you want to document your close encounters with wildlife, bring a camera with a neck strap so you can keep it under your jacket and away from the water when not in use. Pack binoculars if you have them but most of the marine mammals and birds are so close you hardly need them. Life jackets should be provided by the rental company.

Who to Bring

Children age five to fourteen can paddle out in the slough as long as they’re in a double kayak with an adult. Everyone in your party must know how to swim. Other than that, everyone — regardless of kayaking experience — is welcome!


Where to Eat Lunch After Your Paddle

Being out on the water for a few hours builds up an appetite so if you forgot to pack a picnic to eat at the reserve’s Visitor Center, here are a few restaurant options nearby in Moss Landing:

The Whole Enchilada

Haute Enchilada

Moss Landing Cafe

Phil’s Fish Market

Corralitos Brewery (food trucks on the weekend and cold beer!)

Research and Conservation

Although the slough is a National Estuarine Research Reserve it’s still threatened by tidal erosion, invasive plants, and pollution from agricultural runoff and potentially lead and copper runoff from a nearby auto-dismantling facility. Check out Hilltromper’s article for more information on the runoff and stop by the slough’s Visitor Center and website to learn about the research and conservation efforts taking place within the reserve.

About Molly Lautamo

Molly Lautamo is a freelance writer and content strategist. She came to Santa Cruz almost ten years ago to attend UCSC and never left. To check out more of Molly's writing, visit mollylautamo.com