There are beaches all up and down the Mendocino coast, but none is as iconic as Big River Beach. Located down the cliffs from the village of Mendocino, Big River is a sprawling sandy beach perfect for a little seaside fun, sunbathing, or splashing in the water. Although it is the most popular of the beaches on the coast, it is still far from crowded. Depending on the day, you may find yourself alone on this expansive beach – or possibly with one or two other couples walking the strand.
You can access Big River Beach one of two different ways. You can walk from the village of Mendocino, behind the historic Presbyterian Church on Main Street. Walk to the iconic white church, and then down into the rear parking lot. Here you’ll find a path that goes to the cliffside, and then wooden steps leading down to the west side of the beach. Alternately, if you drive just south of Mendocino, and turn east before you cross the bridge, you’ll be taken down a road to a parking lot at beach level.
The beach itself changes its configuration from year to year, depending on how the storms have rearranged the channel. Some years there will be a massive lagoon on the north-west corner of the beach, while other years a channel will have formed, creating a large sandbar island that can be waded out to.
Although most visitors never explore past the beach itself, Big River is actually the gateway to one of Mendocino’s most beautiful wonderlands. 7,400 acres of watershed along the river are now protected land, and open to public use via the Big River Haul Road. This is an excellent road for hiking or bicycling, and although it isn’t paved, the early parts of the trail are quite level and navigable.
The first seven miles of the trail are suitable for people at all levels of fitness, but once you pass the fork at around seven miles, the path becomes a big more rugged. Nonetheless, if you have a full day hike in you, and want to see a local favorite spot, continue left at the fork for another few miles and you’ll arrive at Lily’s – a clothing-optional swimming hole. This trail is also one of the best blackberry picking opportunities on the coast, starting in mid-summer.