Photo Credit Lyrinda Snyderman
the Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park
The Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park is an extraordinary place of gentle tidal flows, mist-laden redwoods, and obscure marshes located in Mendocino County. Big River is 41.7 miles long. Its watershed covers an area of about 7,400 acres and comprises some of the best timber ground on the planet, extending from the mouth of Big River to 800’ elevation inland ridges. Big River is the longest undeveloped estuary in northern California, and was rated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as one of the top four conservation projects under its jurisdiction.
The river’s headwaters are 31 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean in the Mendocino Range, part of the California Coast Range. The lower portions of the river pass through Mendocino Woodlands State Park and the Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park before reaching the mouth of the river at the Pacific Ocean, just south of the town of Mendocino. In 2002 the Big River wetlands was added to the Mendocino Headlands State Park creating a huge wildlife corridor which joins varied coastal and inland habitats into the largest section of connected public land completely within Mendocino County.
Kayaking, Canoeing, and SUP boarding on the Big River is a must for anyone who loves paddling in nature’s beauty and the outdoors. Big River's tidal estuary connects to Mendocino Bay. The 8.3 mile long Big River Estuary is a water passage where the river meets the ocean, allowing the tide to meet the river current. Being tidal, Big River's lower four miles provides a delightful flat water paddling adventure.
Canoes and kayaks can put-in at the primitive boat ramp at the eastern edge of the sandy beach just below the trailhead. (The put-in is on the south side of Mendocino, accessible by vehicle from Highway 1 at Big River Beach at the mouth of Big River. While heading north on CA1, take the first exit to the left to drive down to the beach. You can park your vehicle under the bridge after unloading.
Big River is a tidal river, meaning the direction of flow changes with the tides. So if you paddle far up river and then want to paddle back when the tide is coming in, you're going to be paddling against the current plus the headwind coming off the ocean. The wind is an environmental element to be reckoned into your paddling plans.
The wind in the afternoon can get really strong and gusty. Typically, prevailing northwest wind gets stronger as the day goes by, making the kayakers' return trip more difficult. Keep this in mind when determining how far up river to paddle. The tide is a much lesser influence, although the easiest trip will be to paddle up on the rising tide, and paddle back down on the ebb. Being tidal, the banks of the river are slippery and muddy, but there are numerous areas that offer decent spots to pull your kayak out along the shore.