Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge

Beaches, Hiking, Photography

Note: In the winter months the access road to the refuge may be impassible. There is also a hunting season for the refuge, usually October through January.

I drive across the Salinas river a few times a week on my way to work at UC Santa Cruz, and I got to thinking it would be kinda cool to see where it empties into the ocean, or more accurately Monterey Bay.  While we didn’t quite see that feature, we did stumble on a great place to have a large part of Monterey Bay shoreline all to yourself.

Susie and I have driven alongside the Salinas river for miles in the other direction, as it meanders alongside Hwy 101 almost to Atascadero. 

The thing is 175 miles long and runs the entire length of the Salinas valley past acres of agriculture, oil fields and rows of vineyards that stretch across the entire valley floor, as far as you can see.

So I called it up on Google maps, and it turns out that the river ends it journey in the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge, a 367 acre preserve bounded by Monterey bay, acres of artichokes and Brussels sprouts, and the river itself.

Susie and I headed out there on a Sunday afternoon. From Monterey you drive North on Hwy 1, exit on Del Monte Blvd and head through the fields toward the bay.

The road immediately turns to dirt, which would normally be a problem in January, as the winter rains would have turned the rich valley soil into muck. Great for growing things, not so hot for a low-to-the-ground 1999 Saab convertible.

As it turned out, the dirt wasn’t a problem as it hasn’t rained this year (as in the worst drought on record for California) and except for some bumps, we landed in the refuge parking fully intact.

We got out of the car, walked through the gate, turned right and headed for the river.  After about 100 yards we were stopped by a sign that said this trail to the Salinas River proper was only open to hunters from October through January. Having been pinged by birdshot once before (in a NWRefuge incidentally) we heeded the sign, turned around and headed to the beach along Monterey Bay.

I always have a camera or two with me and quickly realized that finding something nice to shoot this day might be a problem.  It was so completely dry.  The landscape that would normally be various shades of green during the wet winters were brown.  Really brown.  Ashen, almost gray in color.  The fields looked like a Roundup demonstration run amok.

Regardless, we pressed on to the beach, using a trail that passes a large pond and wetlands, and crosses through the dunes.  As you slog a bit walking in the loose sand, you can really start to smell the combination of fresh ocean air and wet sand.

We passed one family on their way back from the beach, and that was it.  We had the entire beach to ourselves.  I’m smiling to myself: there’s 37 million people in California but the two of us have this entire beach to ourselves.  Not another person in sight in either direction. Clearly worth the ride.

Of course, we started doing what everyone does when they hit the beach…  seeing what’s been washed up in the last tide.  The most unusual thing was the sand dollars, each and every one with a small cluster of barnacles hitching a ride.

It turns out that the Salinas River does indeed empty out into the bay nearby, but it was a bit of a walk and we were running out of sunlight.  So we opted to stay put and grab a few shots of the fog drifting over the sunset.

So we’ll head out here again soon, after the hunters are done for the season and explore the river’s edge and see just where it empties into the bay.

We closed out the day with a trip to Phil’s Fish Market up the road in Moss Landing.  And if you’re out on this part of Hwy 1, make a stop at Pezzini’s farm stand for all kinds of veggies and dressings, including everything artichoke and brussels sprouts on the stick.

Kid factor: (+) Nature, beach, sand (-) cold water, wave action can be dangerous, no life guards, no facilities.

Fitness factor: Mild hiking, 15 minutes to the beach, traction in sand could be difficult for some. Bring your own water.

Photo factor: (+) Dunes, beach, waterfowl, Monterey Bay, beachcombing with a camera. (-) As of this writing (Jan 2014) the upland grasses are parched because of drought, very limited wildflowers, although the trail along the Salinas River in the reeds and grasses might be productive. (Closed for hunting Oct thru Jan).