This is a trip fresh in my mind as we just did it last week-end. We had great fun, I think it is a trip that we will be repeating in the future.
The way to Stop 1 - We decided to take 101 on the way to Elkhorn. Click here for the map. Basically you go down towards Monterey on 101 and then take that side road at the Disneyana flea market (the red barn, where traffic halts on the week-end...). Then take the back roads to arrive at the Elkhorn Slough. Great drive, beautiful places.
Tip: Make sure to stop if you see a strawberry stand! We skipped a few, then could not find one, even though we were driving by strawberry fields...not a good thing when the kids are all set for strawberries. At the Elkhorn Preserve there is a bathroom, picnic grounds, so there is a place to wash those freshly picked strawberries.
Stop 1 - Elkhorn Slough (near Watsonville)
Official website link: http://www.elkhornslough.org/
There is fee for the adults only to use the trails, 2.50$ per day. I think it is very reasonable and goes to a good cause. The ladies at the visitor center were super nice and helped us with trail maps, guidance on what too look out for and gave us a few rules (need to clean shoes before entering the trail to prevent the spread of sudden oak death and to be quiet on the trails as they had nesting owls and other nesting birds). They also helped decide which trail to take.
The kids spent a really long (I mean, really, really long) time at the visitor center. They have microscopes where they could check out feathers. Then there are lots of exhibits, that say 'Please touch'. Cool little museum, worth the time. We even picked up some free coloring booklets and brochures with nice photos.
After some discussion we took a longer trail, 2.2M, called South Marsh Loop. It was not too difficult even for our 4 year old. We made lots of stops, saw different terrains, birds, even heard the swoosh of a snake. The barn with the owls was a highlight.
Great picnic grounds behind the visitor center, nice bathrooms inside! Also, there were very few people the day we went, which was really a nice thing. You can plan on spending here a long time. We stayed as long as the little one needed a nap and then headed out to Santa Cruz (just enough ride time for a nap).
Here is the link to the trail maps: http://www.elkhornslough.org/aerialtrails.htm
On the way to Stop 2: We took a different road out, for fun. We turned right from the Reserve and headed out towards the Moss Landing power plant. Here is a map of the ride.
Tip: OK, so we messed up the strawberry stands on the way in, but found a great one along Highway 1, just before it becomes a freeway. Take the 129 exit towards the ocean, the stand is right there by the Chevron station. Map here.
It was just on time for a certain kid who was showing strawberry withdrawal symptoms (it is a noisy condition, mostly involves bugging the adults with the question: Where can we buy some strawberries already??? with some whining involved... nasty, avoid it if you can by buying strawberries on time!)
Stop 2 : Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is great fund for many day trips but on this day we just did a couple of hours. Here is what we did and that worked out good, I can recommend it:
We stopped first for a late lunch at one of my parents' favorite quick places: Sabieng Thai Restaurant. Here is the link. It is clean, friendly, cheap (lunch menu is 6.75$ per person). Oh, and the food is good, too! They have kid friendly (not spicy) dishes, too, like fried rice and pad thai.
Then we headed to the beach using this route. We checked out the Lighthouse, the surfing museum inside it, the surfers in the water and went down to the beach.
Believe it or not that day we even saw a snake on the cliffs by the lighthouse! Sorry, forgot to take the camera for that walk and no proof except in our memories.
The way home: We took Highway 17 on the way home, to keep it interesting for the driver. Of course, all kids asleep during the ride home !!!