Wet and Wild

From the river to the sea by paddleboard in watery, wonderful Mendocino.

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Chuck Graham

With knobby sea stacks, rugged stone archways and numerous sea caves, the majestic Mendocino coastline seems custom-made for standup paddling.


dense ceiling of dewy overcast hovered above a towering redwood forest canopy, the steady flow of Big River ambling beneath me toward the icy Pacific of Northern California. My carbon fiber paddle gently sliced through the glassy river, the only breach in silence as I followed the flight of a foraging osprey. I could feel the tug of an outgoing tide pulling me out of the coastal range leaving the iconic redwoods in my wake and eventually along the ruggedly breathtaking Mendocino Headlands.

About 3 hours north of San Francisco, the quiet coastal town of Mendocino is the great escape from city life where time slows down to a crawl. Like veins running down a forearm, flat-water rivers gently run serpentine-like, flowing out to gaping river mouths where graveyards of bleached driftwood clutter pearly white beaches.

Mendocino County was one of the original counties of California at the time of statehood in 1850. Following the wreck of the Frolic during that same year, Harry Meiggs, a San Francisco lumber dealer, sent a resourceful Jerome Ford on a salvage mission. Instead of finding Chinese ginger jars, bolts of silk, camphor, lacquered trunks and various housewares, Ford discovered thick groves of redwood and Douglas fir trees in the region. A year later, Meiggs erected a sawmill at Big River. This led to the founding of Mendocino and the beginning of the lumber industry in Northern California. Due to an initially low population in Mendocino, however, the coastal town did not have a separate government until 1859.

State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, winds along the Mendocino coastline, hugging the edge of sheer, wave-battered bluffs, crossing several rivers shaded by redwood forests. The best and easiest place to launch a standup paddleboard is located at Van Damme State Beach. Really though, it’s almost as if Mendocino was made for standup paddling. Paddle beneath quaint Pacific coastal villages atop rugged cliffs where knobby sea stacks endure relentless crashing waves. The Mordor-like archways are too many to count and fun to paddle through depending on the surf, which can be unruly at times.

Much of the coast is honeycombed with toothy sea grottos in various configurations. Many of those sea caves are through-caves and dependent on the tides for access, but there are many deep coves protected from the elements which make for easy entry points before venturing through rock gardens and surging channels.

Nearly 10 percent of the county consists of water and 10 rivers flow one way or another through Mendocino. Eight of those reach the ocean and all are on flat water. Standup paddlers can experience the best of both worlds in Mendocino, leaving the craggy coastline and paddle for the serenity of redwood-choked runnels. Black bears, ospreys, hummingbirds, river otters and mule deer are readily seen along the banks of the Albion, Navarro, and Big rivers. One of the more interesting paddles begins on the Albion heading upriver toward several floating cabins. Playful river otters post up on weathered docks and slalom between rows of 160-year-old posts still standing in the chilly water. The docks were once used to collect lumber floating down river during that industry’s heyday.

Another, more challenging paddle involves leaving the town of Mendocino heading north on an 8-mile round-trip excursion up to the Point Cabrillo Light Station, built in 1909. Weave between giant sea stacks over crystal-clear water while ducking in and out of tranquil coves and dank sea caves. The light station is prominent, standing by itself on a flat marine terrace overlooking the burly headlands. On a clear day its flashing light can be seen more than 15 miles away.

Alegria Inn

44781 Main St.
This is a fantastic place to stay and enjoy the Mendocino Coast. Located on the Mendocino Headlands, this cozy ocean front B&B has wood burning stoves inside cottages that blend into the rugged Northern California landscape. It also has a trail from the property which descends to the broad, sandy beach and river mouth of Big River, and is easy walking distance into town.

Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar
10450 Lansing Street
When the ocean and rivers are a cool 49 degrees, it’s nice to know there’s a cup of hot chocolate, coffee or tea just up the trail. An adjoining art gallery and Internet café are also inside. A great place to hang out (and thaw out) in the cozy confines of Mendocino.

Standup Paddle Mendocino
Van Damme Beach State Park
State Highway 1, Little River
Lessons and tours are held at Van Damme State Beach, just off Highway 1, in a deep, tranquil cove paddling along one of California’s most scenic coastlines. In close proximity to the launch site are many sea caves, narrow channels and rock gardens occupied by curious harbor seals, whistling pigeon guillemots, soaring ospreys and football-sized common murres. And if standup paddling isn’t your gig, they also offer excellent kayak tours from the same convenient beach.

Frankie’s Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor
44591 Ukiah Street
Frankie’s in the village of Mendocino is the ideal place to pick up a quick nosh or savor a tasty meal following a paddle. It is family owned and run, serving pizza, falafel and locally made ice cream as well as other items. Also on the menu are espresso drinks, tea, beer or wine. Frankie’s uses organic, sustainable, locally grown products, and offers live music weekly.

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park
13800 Point Cabrillo Drive
If you don’t want to paddle up to the light station, you can enjoy a leisurely stroll in a tranquil nature reserve where browsing mule deer and opportunistic northern harriers frequent the sweeping grasslands of the Mendocino Headlands. The Point Cabrillo Light Station is the beacon of the headlands, and it is a cool alternative for learning about the history of Mendocino. The station also offers guided tours that take place each Sunday.

Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar offers hot beverages for warming up after chilly excursions by land or by sea.

Mule deer on the cliffs of the Mendocino Headlands. Black bears, ospreys, hummingbirds and river otters can also be seen along the banks of the Albion, Navarro, and Big rivers.

Viewed from clifftops or driftwood-littered beaches, the Mendocino Headlands are a breathtaking sight.

Alegria Inn is a charming oceanfront bed and breakfast within walking distance of both beach and town.

Dock and floating cabin on the Albion River once used by log drivers collecting lumber floating downstream in the 1800s.


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