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Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

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. 

Trail/Pathway Details

Elkhorn Slough Overlook Trail

Trailhead: Behind visitor center

Length: Under one mile total

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Gentle

Terrain: Hard

Asphalt is slightly worn and bumpy in places


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. 

Five Fingers Loop Trail

Trailhead: From the visitor center, follow the paved main trail less than .25 miles. Look for the trail marker on the left.

Length: 2-4 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle

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.

Terrain: Moderately Firm

Grasses cover the trail but are kept mowed. In April, we found this trail uncomfortably rough but otherwise usable.

Obstacles: 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 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.

Accessibility Details

The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

At visitor center

Accessible Restroom: Yes

At visitor center

Accessible Picnic Tables: Yes

At 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.

From nearby Kirby Park, at the northeast end of the slough, a mile-long wheelchair-accessible trail extends out over the mudflats.
Lowered telescope
Lowered telescope (Patricia Narciso)

Features icon key

  • hiking
  • particularly good for families
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: California Department of Fish and Game
Address: 1700 Elkhorn Rd., Watsonville
Nearest City: Watsonville
Phone: (831) 728-2822
Hours: Trails and visitor center: Wed.-Sun., 9 am-5 pm
Fees: Entrance
Dogs: Not allowed

Did You 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."

Reviewed by Ann Sieck, September 1, 2007
Access Norhtern California This web guide is a project of Access Northern California.  
California Coastal Conservancy Thanks to our partner the California Coastal Conservancy

DISCLAIMER: Although the information contained in this web-guide was believed to be correct at the time of publication, neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy shall be held responsible or liable for any inaccuracies, errors, or omissions, nor for information that changes or becomes outdated. Neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy assume any liability for any injury or damage arising out of, or in connection with, any use of this guide or the sites described in it.

Accessible Restrooms Icon looks like a women and men restroom signBeach Accessible
Wheelchairs Available
  Hiking icon is silhouette of a hikerHiking & Trails
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