Kayaking Mendocino Coast Rivers
Plan to go with the flow.
Coastal Rivers that empty into the ocean are called estuaries. Tidal currents occur in estuaries. The current flows up river with the flooding tide and down river with the ebbing tide. Planning your trip with the tides will make for a funner, easier trip and also will determine how far you can go up the river. Ebbing tides at river mouths can be treacherous. The current often speeds up just before reaching the sea and can be too strong to paddle against. Every year, unsuspecting kayakers get swept out into the ocean by river currents. On the Mendocino Coast, the river mouths at Big River and Albion River are notoriously swift and tricky.
Be prepared for chilly water.
On the Mendocino Coast, most of the water in the estuary is from the ocean. 52 degrees is the average water temperature in the ocean on the Mendocino Coast. The water in estuaries will get a little bit warmer than the ocean but rarely gets above 60 degrees. This is cold! Plan what you wear accordingly including a life jacket. Many paddlers become complacent in the quiet estuary waters and eschew a life jacket or don’t buckle/zip theirs. We have seen numerous people fall in and be inhibited by their life jacket or wishing they had one in the cold water. A properly fitting life jacket will be comfortable and protect you when you need it – Just Wear It!
Respect wildlife and private property.
One of the coolest parts of kayaking/canoeing is getting to see wildlife that you would not normally see from land. Viewing wildlife is a privilege. When we give wildlife space and refrain from loud and quick movements, the wildlife will be more inclined to go about its business and we will get a better show. A trick that I share with paddlers is to paddle quietly and parallel to the wildlife. Often, they will just watch you go by and then continue with what they were doing. Pointing at wildlife and paddling toward them will threaten them causing them to spook and fly, run, or swim away.
The banks and hillsides along the rivers in Mendocino County is mostly private property.Most property owners are not tolerant of trespassing so it is not wise to hike or venture away from the river’s highwater line.
The Noyo River is a diamond in the rough of the coastal rivers. Mendocino’s Big River gets all the publicity, but those who know the Noyo enjoy it easy waters and quirky beauty. Kayaks can be launched from either of the 2 public launch ramps in the South Harbor. Kayak rentals are available year round from Subsurface Progression and in the summer from the Noyo Fishing Center. Of course, the best way to experience the Noyo River is on a guided tour with Liquid Fusion Kayaking.
Mendocino’s Big River is probably the best known and most commonly paddled river in Mendocino County. It is beautiful! On the right tide, you can paddle 6 miles up the river. Access is easy via a boat ramp on the North Side of the river or you can rent a kayak or outrigger canoe from Catch a Canoe on the south side of the river. Definitely plan this trip with the tide and wind and be prepared for mosquitoes.
When I kayak on the Albion River, I can’t help but envision what is must have looked like 100 years ago. It is a beautiful river lined with redwood trees and has some interesting man-made structures. The Albion River Campground is the primary launch. There is a fee for launching which you pay at the campground office. Kayak and canoe rentals are also available. Definitely plan this trip with the tide and wind and avoid the river mouth by the bridge during an ebb tide (The current can get really fast and sweep you out to sea).
The Navarro River runs through Anderson Valley. The Navarro River begins at Hendy Woods. The first 16 miles is wilderness (no road access) and considered class 1.5. The run is beautiful; however, the brush in the channels and strainer hazards make it tricky and detract from the fun. From Dimmick Campground to the ocean, the Navarro is 8 miles of class 1 water with highway access. Strainers are a hazard in this section when the river is flowing fast after rain. Late spring and summer are the best seasons to kayak on this lower stretch of the Navarro. Scout out your put-in and take-out as the banks change from year to year. In the summer and fall when the river mouth is closed off by a sandbar, you may launch from the bank by the Highway 1 bridge and do an out and back paddle up the river. Definitely be prepared for mosquitoes.
The Gualala River lies on the Mendocino/Sonoma County Line. The lower Gualala is the most commonly paddled stretch of the Gualala. Summer and Fall are usually the best times to paddle on the lower Gualala River. This is when the sand bar has closed off the mouth of the river making for a lagoon like paddle. You can paddle among the sand dunes toward the mouth of the river. Or you can paddle up the river and check out the swimming holes and redwoods. The easiest way to paddle the Gualala is to rent from Adventure Rents. They have been renting kayaks and canoes on the Gualala since 1994 and will bring the boats right to the water for you.