Big River. Big Experience.

When visiting our North Coast region, it is often easy to forget about the many beautiful rivers throughout the region, which often take a backseat to the stunning Pacific coastlines and the majestic redwoods. One of the great river experiences is found in Mendocino County.

Big River, as the name implies, is big. But it’s also beautiful. It’s also rich with life, protected, and full of great history. It’s all these things, and so much more. It’s one of Mendocino County’s great resources, and while you can see it by foot or by bicycle, there is truly no better way to appreciate it than by getting on the water and exploring its length via canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard.

Big River in Mendocino County, California

The history of the land dates back to the very beginning of western settlement of the Mendocino Coast – with the first lumber mill on the coast established at the mouth of Big River in 1852. The mill built here was the most important in Mendocino County for decades, and a 9 mile railway line helped service logging operations (the remains of old wooden trestle bridges can still be spotted on your trip). Logging continued in the area for well over a century, but in 2002 more than 7,400 acres of the watershed were purchased in order to be preserved by the State Parks system – resulting in Big River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area, which is part of the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Big River is the longest undeveloped estuary in Northern California. Today, the Mendocino Land Trust works in partnership with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to manage and protect this valuable and beautiful area.

The estuary is now a thriving ecosystem, rich with biodiversity at all levels. As you paddle along, you’re likely to see a variety of beautiful wildlife. During the spring you may see harbor seals pupping in the warm sun a few miles up the river. Great Blue Herons make their home here, and will stand stock still as you paddle past. Look closely and you may find an otter snacking on a crab on a log. All told there are 22 species of fish, and over 130 species of bird that can be spotted here.

Beyond the natural beauty, there are also historical artifacts you will find as you wend your way down the river. In addition to pilings from old bridges, the remains of two paddleboats (the Maru) are still there, although submerged.

The lower four miles are completely tidal, and are ideal for beginners, as you can travel with the tide and have much of the work done for you (if you like standup paddle boarding, this is a perfect location). Past that, the passable river continues for another 4.3 miles with a mild flow most of the year, and it entirely doable even for novice paddlers (though remember, however far you paddle in, you’ll have to paddle out!).

Dog on the Big River

Catch-a-Canoe is located at the mouth of the river, reached on the south side of Big River Bridge. They rent beautiful handcrafted redwood outrigger canoes (virtually impossible to tip), as well as kayaks. It’s a perfect way to explore the Big River estuary, whether you’re traveling alone, have children, or even are exploring with a canine friend. Because Big River is a tidal estuary, it’s important to travel with the tides, so always call ahead to find the best times to embark on your journey (during the summer months they also sell out, so it’s worth reserving in advance). If you have your own canoes, kayaks, or paddleboards, the put-in is located on the north side of Big River Bridge, on the easternmost side of Big River Beach.

All photos courtesy of Catch A Canoe & Bicycles Too. Taken by Rick Hammonds.