This expansive estuary about 25 miles south of Santa Cruz explodes with life, and even better, it’s really easy to see it. Kids love clambering aboard a 27-foot open-air pontoon boat with Elkhorn Slough Safari to poke around the slough, learning why sea otters thrive in this protected habitat—meaty clams and other sea-otter favorites thrive here. Other fascinating sightings include throngs of harbor seals hauled up on shoals, staring with limpid eyes and bodies shaped like overstuffed cigars. Binoculars are hardly needed to spot herons, egrets, white pelicans, and other interesting birds. Just keep your eyes peeled—more than 300 species are found here.
Older kids (and grownups) have fun paddling a kayak through the slough’s many channels. Rent gear and get instruction from Kayak Connection; guided tours such as the Starlight Bioluminescence Tour and the Birdwatching Tour are also available, and last from two to three hours. No kayaking experience necessary.
You can also explore on foot. Five miles of hiking trails wind around the preserve, accessing tidal creeks, freshwater marshes, and oak woodlands. Elkhorn Slough Foundation runs a hands-on education center, and offers guided walks and activities throughout the year.
Save time to explore the village of Moss Landing, where fishermen in the lively harbor often sell their catch right off the boat. Stroll past the research labs of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (not open to the public) to line up at Phil’s Fish Market for legendary cioppino, so good it went head-to-head with chef Bobby Flay’s version on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay.