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Mendocino Headlands State Park

Big River Haul Road

From Big River Beach to trailhead is 8.3 miles one way

Big River wasn’t named for its length or breadth, but for the size of the redwoods that once grew along the banks. Big (second-growth) redwoods and a big estuary are among the compelling natural attractions of Big River wetland, a big (7,334 acres) unit added to California’s park system in 2002.

For a century and a half, the Big River region was owned by various timber companies and very much off-limits to recreation. State funds, federal funds and donations secured by the Mendocino Land Trust, along with the dedicated work by many conservationists, helped create the state park. The park preserves the only major undeveloped estuary in northern California.

Big River is big on biological diversity: freshwater and brackish marshland, mudflats, plus stands of redwoods, hardwoods, bishop pine and pygmy cypress. The new park is big on birds, too, and offers critical habitat for more than two dozen rare, endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl, bald eagle and California brown pelican. Big River’s estuary is ideal spawning habitat and nursery waters for coho and steelhead.

Kayaking and canoeing Big River are popular activities. Paddling Big River’s forested canyon is a delight—provided paddlers time their travels with the tides.

Some proud locals claim the world’s best blackberries grow in the new park. To verify this claim, go berry picking in late summer. 

Big River is all but surrounded by public land. Jackson Demonstration State Forest borders the park on the north, Van Damme State Park (with a brief interruption by Comptche-Ukiah Road and a corridor of private land) borders the park on the south.

Hikers can ramble through the park and onto adjacent parkland, connecting to a far-flung trail network that totals more than one hundred miles of trail. Old logging roads lead to Jackson State Forest and Mendocino Woodlands State Park.

Numerous dead-end logging roads and skid trails crisscross the park, rangers caution, meaning it’s easy to get frustrated, disoriented or lost if you venture off the main road. The main road, in this case, is the Big River Haul Road, which loosely parallels the north side of Big River, and winds 8.3 miles to its end at the edge of the estuary. A multi-use path, it’s open to hiking, cycling and horseback riding. Many of the confusing old logging roads will be “decommissioned,” as park planners put it.

Wander the haul road for as long as you wish. For a mellow introduction to the park, hike to the two- or three-mle mark (posted on trees en route).

Southwide Trail leads along the south side of Big River. It’s not a maintained route and may soon be too washed out and overgrown for use. Impressive redwoods and river vistas are the highlights of this two-mile round trip hike. First you head east on a retired logging road and walk amidst some tall redwoods. Views soon open up to reveal the park’s namesake river and the town of Mendocino. Farther along, you’ll cross well-watered, fern-filled hillsides.

Directions to the trailhead: From Highway 1 at the south edge of Mendocino, turn inland on the Big River Beach access road. The old haul road (closed to vehicles) begins at the east (most inland) end of the parking area.

To reach the trailhead for the little Southside Trail, you’ll turn inland on Comptche-Ukiah Road and drive 0.25 mile to a small (parking for just a couple of cares) turnout by an old logging road on the left.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at