Driftwood-Laden Big River Beach In Mendocino Bay

While we lucked out with the weather on our spring break road trip to the Mendocino Coast, the beginning of a nasty storm rolled in on our last day. We explored the historic seaside village of Mendocino and visited the International Sea Glass Museum in the rain, walked the Van Damme State Park Pygmy Forest and squeezed in one more stop at Glass Beach in a break in the rain before heading back to the hotel to pack up and head home before the full storm descended upon Fort Bragg and California’s northern coast.

We packed up the truck while the kids ate pizza and on our way out of town, with gray skies overhead and the wind sweeping across the shoreline, we made one last stop at Big River Beach.

Located in the Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park, where Big River flows into the Pacific Ocean, driftwood-laden Big River Beach sits just below the south end of the historic village of Mendocino.

Big River Beach is part of a nearly 7,400 acre wildlife corridor that includes 1,500 acres of coastal estuary wetlands. While the beach is one of the most popular beaches in Mendocino due to its high visibility and easy access, it’s large enough that it never really looks or feels crowded… and when it’s stormy, you just may have the entire beach to yourself like we did.

Carter Bourn At Big River Beach
Carter looking down the sandy Big River Beach with the village of Mendocino atop the headlands in the distance.

There are two different ways you can access Big River Beach:

  1. From the village of Mendocino, follow a path that starts behind the historic Presbyterian Church on Main Street to the cliffs and descend a wooden staircase to the beach at the base of the cliffs.
  2. From Highway 1 just south of Mendocino, turn east just before the bridge and follow Big River Road to a beach-level parking lot at the end of the road — look for a sign that reads Big River State Beach.

In all of the times we have visited Mendocino, we have never accessed Big River Beach from the town because we didn’t want to haul all of our stuff down the stairs or walk back up the stairs! Instead, we simply drove to the parking lot at the beach.

One cool thing about Big River Beach is that you never know what the beach is going to look like from year to year. The severity of winter storms changes the the beach, so sometimes there is a sand bar just offshore and sometimes there is a big lagoon at the mouth of Big River.

Big River Beach In Mendocino, California
A panorama shot of Big River Beach in Mendocino. On the left is the mouth of Big River and on the right atop the bluffs is Mendocino Village.

From the Big River Beach parking lot, you have two options:

  1. Head toward the ocean to access the wide, white sand Big River Beach covered in driftwood.
  2. Head up river to access the Big River Trail and the Big River Estuary.

Because a storm was rolling in and rain was imminent, we opted to skip hiking Big River Trail and instead check out the beach during a quick patch of sun. And, it didn’t hurt that Carter was already running in the direction of the beach to check out all the driftwood and the forts he saw from the Highway above.

When we turned the corner from the parking area around the cliff, we were immediately hit with wind. But Carter had already seen a driftwood fort structure in the distance and there was no turning back. Driftwood beach forts beg to played in, so we stopped for a bit so the kids could check it out. After walking partway down the beach, Natalie and Brian were over gusts of wind, during which we would all get pelted in the face with sand, so they sat on a giant log and waited for Carter and I to finish exploring the beach.

Carter and I made it pretty much all the way to the base of the cliffs at the opposite end of the beach for one reason only. More driftwood structures. There were several abandoned driftwood forts spaced out along the entire beach and because we were the only people on the beach, Carter got to explore them all. And, while I followed him from one to the next, snapping photos and hunting for sea shells, eventually my face felt frozen, my fingers hurt, and I was so cold we turned around, met up with Natalie and Brian, and headed home, exhausted from an incredible week.

Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park began operation in 1974, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the California State Parks acquired the 7,334 acre Big River wetlands between Russian Gulch State Park and Van Damme State Park.

The Big River Estuary protects the habitats of 27 threatened or endangered animal species and 21 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species. Some threatened species are slowly reappearing. This project and other protected lands form a 74,000-acre corridor that allows wildlife to roam freely between existing parks and preserves.

The Beach at Mouth of Big River
At the mouth of Big River in the Big River Estuary is a wide, flat, sandy beach that is popular with kayakers, dog owners, and families who don’t want to deal with the often violent surf. The Big River Trailhead is at the far end of the parking area.

Know Before You Go

  • Big River Beach in the Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park is located off Highway 1 on Big River Road in Mendocino, California 95460.
  • Parking and admission to Mendocino Headlands State Park in Mendocino County is free and open for day use only.
  • Big River Beach can be accessed from a path/wooden staircase behind the historic Presbyterian Church on Main Street in the town of Mendocino, OR from a beach-level parking lot at the end of Big River Road directly off Highway 1.
  • The parking lot for Big River Beach provides access to the beach and to the Big River Estuary and the trailhead for the Big River Trail.
  • Restrooms are available at the parking lot.
  • Download the brochure for Mendocino Headlands, Russian Gulch, and Van Damme State Parks
  • Dogs must be kept on leash.

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