From Beaches and Bluffs to Birds

North of the city of Monterey is a diverse coastline that rewards the curious hiker--beaches, bluff tops and wetlands. Providing a dramatic backdrop to these northern beaches are some of the Central Coast's tallest dunes, handsomely shaped sand mounds that are the habitat for rare native plants and animals.

Elkhorn Slough, the Central California Coast's second-largest salt marsh, preserves crucial habitat for waterfowl. The north bank of the slough is protected within the 700-acre Moss Landing Wildlife Area. The wetland is a critical rest stop and feeding ground for tens of thousands of migratory birds. Wintertime bird-watching is superb.

Salt is a word to remember around here. During the late 1800s, the Monterey Bay Salt Co. constructed salt ponds, harvesting the salt and supplying the Monterey and Moss Landing canneries. Today, these former saltwater evaporation ponds host thousands of California brown pelicans.

The Moss Landing Wildlife Area

This area is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is managed differently than adjoining Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve. Waterfowl hunting is permitted in the Moss Landing Wildlife Area.

Moss Landing trails wind through various habitats around the slough: coastal salt marsh, freshwater ponds, oak woodland and grassland.

Directions to trail head: From California Highway 1 at the highway bridge in Moss Landing, drive 1.7 miles north to a somewhat inconspicuous dirt road on the right that leads a short distance to the Moss Landing Wildlife Area parking lot.

For safety reasons, southbound travelers should continue past the entrance to the wildlife area to Struve Road, then turn around and come back on Highway 1 northbound.

The hike: The path crosses a low dike and soon reaches a signed junction. A side path (sometimes called West Trail or West Blind Trail) leads to the turn-of-the-century salt ponds where salt was harvested. Brown pelicans roost here in the summer.

The salt flats, with the twin towers of the Moss Landing power plant in the background, and all those pelicans add up to a somewhat surreal scene.

Mostly level Marsh Trail travels along the slough's northwest shoreline and brings you to another side trail leading to an overlook of the main channel of Elkhorn Slough.

The path leads a bit away from the slough through a rolling grassland environment. Cows graze adjacent private property. A couple of oak-shaded tables on a bluff high above the slough make a fine picnic area.

If you want to extend your hike, Marsh Trail continues a few more miles, skirting a native oak woodland and bending north to follow the main channel of Elkhorn Slough.

Salinas River State Beach

Mile-long Dune Trail explores some of Monterey Bay's intriguing sand dunes and links two coastal access points of Salinas River State Beach. The dunes back the state beach, a popular fishing spot.

East of the dunes are croplands and wetlands in the former Salinas River channel, which extends south from Moss Landing to the Salinas River Wildlife Area; in 1908, farmers diverted its course in order to create additional farmland.

Dune Trail begins south of the harbor of Moss Landing, often a surprisingly good place to watch for wildlife: Sea otters paddle here and there, sea lions bask on a narrow finger of sand, pelicans are abundant on air, land and sea.

From the harbor, walkers can follow a half-mile dirt road (closed to vehicles) south to the Salinas River State Beach access and parking area off Potrero Road, where Dune Trail begins.

The path is over soft sand, seasonally colored by lupine, Indian paintbrush and California poppy. Hikers get mostly inland views, though the path does crest a rise for a peek at the coast. A mile out, you have the choice of retracing your steps or returning via the beach.

Directions to trail head: From Highway 1 at Moss Landing, exit on Potrero Road and follow it half a mile to the parking lot at Salinas River State Beach.

The other trail head is off Molera Road. Follow signed Monterey Dunes Way half a mile to the beach.

Moss Landing Wildlife Area, Salinas River State Beach Marsh Trail

WHERE: Monterey Bay.

DISTANCE: To picnic area is 4.5 miles round trip.

TERRAIN: Salt marsh.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

PRECAUTIONS: Both Salinas River State Beach trail heads have been the site of vehicle break-ins. Lock your car and take valuables with you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Sanctuary. (408) 728-2822; Salinas River State Beach, (408) 384-7695.

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