Elkhorn Slough is a protected estuary reserve located near Moss Landing. Because it's protected, and there are kayak rental shops at the Moss Landing Boat Launch, the slough sees a lot of kayakers, and the animals are used to them. Consequently, you paddle gently by with the animals doing their thing, mostly ignoring you. Your side of the bargain is not to bother them. Observe them from a distance. Sometimes they pop up right by you, and in those situations, stop paddling, and just enjoy the show.
Where and when you put in depends on the tides. There are only two choices. There is a put in at the mouth of the slough at Moss Landing Boat Launch, and the other is at Kirby (see the kayakers map) near the five mile point. The slough is about six miles in length, so to the end and back is a good paddle at about 12 miles. Since we had a high tide on May 17 at 10:30am, we put in at the mouth at around 8:45am, and let the tide help us all the way to the end. Then we turned around, took out at Kirby for lunch, then let the tide help us out from there on. If you plan with the tides, you'll cover a lot more ground and find your trip a lot more enjoyable. The wind is also an important consideration.
Moss Landing Boat Launch requires payment of fees for parking and for launching. For kayaks, this fee comes to a grand total of $8, placed in an envelope and dropped in a box. I didn't find this information before arrival, so we ended up having to drive just down the road to a store just beyond the restaurant, Whole Enchilada, to make change. They have beaches for putting in, or floating docks. I prefer the floating docs to keep my feet dry when they are available. From the put in you paddle toward the power station. Yes, there is a monster power station here that you won't see in any of my photos. While we were just putting in it let out an enormous hiss of steam into the air. That got our attention. It makes a great landmark.
To your left there is a floating dock covered in barking sea lions. The rule here is to observe the wildlife from a distance. If you paddle too close, you may cause the animals to stampede for the water, and this causes them to waste energy and exposes them to their predators. Some male sea lions can become aggressive if threatened, and they are much bigger and can swim much better than you. There are unseen sea lions on the other side of the slough, and you can hear barking from all sides, and you will probably see sea lions in the water all around you. Just steer clear and drift if one pops up right in front of you, and enjoy the peaceful encounter. They aren't dangerous, but they are very impressive. I will never forget their sounds. They grunt and bark as they quarrel amongst themselves.
You enter the slough by paddling under the Highway 1 bridge. In certain conditions the tide can create quite a current here, but we found it to be a very calm following current. At the time, we were the only ones on the water, and it was a very peaceful setting. Very shortly after entering we spotted a large group of brown pelicans on the north shore. And there were many cormorants and grebes on the water. Study the map for the off limits places. We stayed on the main channel. We talked to one group that went up Rubis Creek (at mile 2) and grounded (this was close to high tide). I recommend staying on the main channel.
On our way, in a number of places we saw sea otters. They are just about the cutest animal I've ever seen. We saw them cleaning, playing, and on our way out, we even saw them feeding. It was in the afternoon, which seems to be feeding time for everyone. We heard this clacking sound, and looking off just to our left we saw an otter on its back smashing a clam into a rock on its chest. Then he ate the contents, then dived for another. Then we heard the same clacking from the right, and there was another otter feeding. About this time we also saw pelicans diving for fish! Next time I paddle Elkhorn Slough, I will bring binoculars. It would be great to catch the sea otters with pups. They are cute enough as it is, but they keep the young on their chests, and this would be a sight to see.
The slough is great for inexperienced paddlers, but the rental places do beginners a disservice if they do not provide adequate instruction. For one thing, we saw a lot of paddlers going against the tides. On a more serious note, we heard from another pair of experienced paddlers how they had to rescue a grandfather and his granddaughter from their capsized tandem. The water is quite cold, though the day can be very warm above water. You can still get hypothermia if you are too long in the water. The girl was shivering in the water, and this is very dangerous if you don't know how to rescue yourself. They were fortunate to have a couple of experienced paddlers come to their rescue. Sit-on-tops are best for novices, and some experienced kayakers prefer them. They can't swamp, so if you tip over, you just climb back on. The drawback is that they are more easily blown about by the wind.
Finally, we met a kayaker who swore by QCC Kayaks in Wisconsin. He and his kayaking partner were so happy with their kevlar kayaks from QCC, that I decided to at least check them out. Apparently they satisfaction guaranteed, and free shipping (in both directions if needed).
The idea for the Santa Cruz paddle came from the book Adventure Kayaking by Michael Jeneid. I highly recommend this book for good reading, and great trips. I bought it from Amazon to inspire me to take trips in my area, and it deserves the five star rating. I have read it cover to cover, and I intend to do as many of the trips as I can.
To avoid the traffic and fees of the harbor, I decided to reverse the route and we put in at Seacliff State Beach. This meant the added fun of a surf launch in the morning. Here is a great video on how to properly do a surf launch. When we got to the beach at 7am, the park was closed. As the park opens at 8am, and there were no envelopes for payment of fees, we took the risk of getting ticketed.
As we were getting the kayaks ready, Kevin saw a dolphin right off the shore. It was so foggy, you couldn't see very far. So, we got the kayaks down to the water's edge, and reviewed the put in procedure. I was to go in first, and a few passersby stopped to watch us. How I love an audience. While I was putting on my spray skirt, I saw Kevin bouncing around in the soup without his spray skirt on, and a wave pushed him right up against me, and over I went. Did I mention that the tide was coming in? So, with the comedy show over, we both powered out through the mild surf, and relaxed beyond the breakers, and finally put our spray skirts on firmly. About this time I noticed that my water bottle that had been under the foredeck webbing was lost to the sea. In the future, I will put my spray skirt on further up from the surf, and with my bow pointing into the waves rather than parallel, which was a mistake that I made. Then I'll do a chimp walk down to the water. I had to pump a fair amount of water out of the cockpit, so be sure to have that spray skirt on before you do a surf launch. I will also tether my water bottle in the future!
There is a shipwreck here, and in the fog it was ominous. We paddled over it to have a look, but not too close. The sea was very calm. Then we turned northward and paddled slowly along the coast and talked about things to do differently next time we do a surf launch. That was when we spotted a pod of dolphins just a little further out to sea from us. In the lead was a group of about four dolphins, followed by at leat two more a little further back. You could hear the blows of their breathing as they surfaced. This was the highlight of that day for sure!
We kept paddling until we hit the kelp beds off of Capitola, and here we turned around. The Adventure Paddling book recommends a paddle from the yacht harbor down to Seacliff and back, but due to a number of factors, we decided on a much shorter paddle. We wanted to have the luxury of a hot shower after our paddle, so we didn't check out of the hotel before we set out. I was also concerned about the truck getting ticketed, or even towed. Also, we were tired from the day before.
To make up for our awkward launch, our take out was flawless! We both rode waves expertly onto the shore and hopped out and pulled our kayaks up the beach.
This trip took a lot of planning! But all in all, it was very easy. We stayed at the America's Best Value Inn in Watsonville, and we would both do it again. You can read the review I wrote for the hotel. What website did I use to find the hotel? Kayak.com of course! From Watsonville, it is a 15 minute drive to Elkhorn Slough, and the same distance from Santa Cruz. There is so much to do and see in Santa Cruz, that when you're not paddling you can be walking up and down the Pacific Garden Mall, exploring the nightlife, walking along the beaches, checking out campus, soaking at the Well Within or Kiva, or hanging out at Cafe Pergolisi.
I got the tides from Saltwater Tides and kept my eye closely on the weather. I was sure to bring paper maps of California, Santa Cruz and Watsonville, which made it easy to get around. I brough a cable to lock the kayaks together to deter theft, and locked the Thule racks in the down position when leaving them for the day. All the gear stowed neatly in the bed of the pickup and traveled well under a bungee net from Kragen.
I highly recommend either location! Have a great (and safe) time!