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Mendocino Was Made for Paddling

Explore Rivers, Sea Caves, and the Burly Coastline

A paddler explores a sea cave in the Mendocino Headlands
Chuck Graham

When we paddled up to a friend’s rustic, floating cabin on the Albion River, a flatwater runnel in Mendocino, I realized this guy had life all figured out. A watery home gave him endless paddling possibilities along winding, serpentine rivers and California’s burly North Coast.

While we sat on the creaking deck, shaded by towering redwoods, rambunctious river otters jostled and frolicked nearby. The next morning, we paddled to the craggy coast, me in my kayak, my friend Craig on his standup paddleboard. The Mordor-like coastline, honeycombed with toothy sea grottos and wave-battered archways, is a paddler’s paradise.

Expect to experience this nirvana mostly by yourself. Aside from basking harbor seals, whistling pigeon guillemots, and soaring ospreys, one can get gratefully lost among all the trees and sea stacks. Typically, the transition from one body of water to the next is a simple one, especially at high tide. There’s plenty to choose from, whether it’s the Navarro River Redwoods State Park or the Albion River or finally the Big River, a broad swath of water that empties out onto a large, white sand beach in the middle of Mendocino.

Just above that beach and Big River is the Alegria Oceanfront Inn. The picturesque B&B with several cozy cottages and well-manicured gardens is conveniently situated on the Mendocino Headlands. A short, narrow trail leads down to the driftwood-strewn beach with easy access to paddling bliss.

It’s as if Mendocino were made for sea cave exploration. The giant sinkhole just west of Big River is a favorite, and at high tide you can paddle through it with bluff walkers looking down wide-eyed from above. Some caves are more exposed than others with waves washing through, so let the ebb and flow of the tide be a guide.

There are several trails and staircases that lead down to the beaches for easy launching of kayaks and standups, but if a guided tour is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong with Kayak Mendocino. Right next to Highway 1 and situated at Van Damme State Park, where Little River spills out into a deep cove, you’ll receive kayak instruction before venturing out.

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