Not long ago, a wetland was considered a useless wasteland – a great place to fill with rock and dirt in order to build townhomes or office buildings. But we are learning. We now know that in addition to being the most biologically diverse ecosystem on earth, wetlands purify water, control floods and stabilize shorelines.
If you have driven through Watsonville, you know there are wetlands near Highway 1. I recently learned that the city of Watsonville has built 6 miles of paths, perfect for walkers (dogs are welcome) and cyclists, around the network of sloughs that comprise the town’s 800-acre wetland. On a recent Saturday morning, Renée and I headed over the hill to take a look.
The Nature Center in Ramsay Park on Harkins Slough Road is open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. We stopped in to learn the lay of the land and ask for route suggestions. The trail system is not a single loop. Rather, there are bits and pieces of trails throughout the sloughs from which you can devise a short stroll or a longer hike depending on the size of your morning bowl of Wheaties.
Since these sloughs are so close to the ocean, I always thought that they were part of an estuary where fresh water and seawater mix. I was surprised to learn that the sloughs are all fresh water. The docent also explained to me that the term “slough,” while not a scientific term, is generally understood to mean a narrow winding waterway with muddy or marshy banks.
Map in hand, we walked a short way down Harkins Slough Road where we picked up the Ohlone Loop Trail, a wheelchair accessible path that traces the edge of Struve Slough. The show began right away. A floating plant with beautiful pink flowers called Water Smartweed stretched from shore well out into the slough. Beyond, a lone Great Blue Heron sat atop a protruding post sunning between meals.
Though we were surrounded by suburban hubbub, the sights and sounds of the Struve Slough pushed it all aside. As we rounded the point, Struve Slough began to pinch from a wide waterway down to a narrow marsh. Tules and cattails hid American Coots and a few mallards. The peak bird watching seasons are spring and fall when waterfowl are migrating, but the summer residents put on a fine show.
After pausing at a slough-side bench, our path along the Ohlone Trail turned back to Ohlone Parkway where we walked a block and picked up the Watsonville Slough Trail. Along this stretch of trail, a noisy Red-shouldered Hawk squawked his way back and forth above us, then lit on a trailside sapling. Very shortly, we were back at the Watsonville Nature Center and Ramsay Park.
In an hour and a half, we had walked perhaps 2.5 miles – all delightful.
The nice thing about a walk in town is that a good lunch is not far away. Following a tip, we grabbed a bite at El Fijolito, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in the center of town; a nice way to cap off a great morning.
When it gets hot on our side of the hill, it is good to know that cool temperatures are just over the divide. Many people enjoy a pleasant walk, but view a hike as an athletic event they can do without. The paths through the Watsonville wetlands are for you: Cool temperatures, lovely views and paths as flat as Kansas.