A game of fetch between child and dog can stretch on for miles at Big River Beach, an expansive piece of the striking puzzle that is Mendocino Headlands State Park. Whether you want solitude or companionship on your family vacation, you’ll find what you’re looking for here — as long you don’t mind the lack of amenities.
Atmosphere: Once you’ve passed the city-close Stinson Beach and the wild coast of Sonoma, you finally enter into Northern California’s slower lifestyle. While Mendocino is definitely a destination, with boutiques, art galleries, and lodging, it never feels like you’ve come here to be a tourist.
Parking and Entrance: For Big River Beach, park on the inland side of Highway 1 and follow the winding trail under the overpass to the beach. To reach the water, you’ll need to make quite a trek from where the sand begins (but this distance is always changing).
Nice Walks and Views: Big River Beach is at the mouth of the Big River. Check out the plant and wildlife growing there, starting from the parking lot and lagoon and along the flowing river. See if you can spot the houses built into the hill, and the rickety private staircases seemingly leading to nowhere.
Activities for Toddlers: The logs and driftwood on this beach will entertain your toddler for hours, and the beach is big enough for her to run without even knowing there’s an ocean nearby. Residents also bring their dogs here for exercise. Always check water quality online or on signs at the beach before letting your child play in the water near a rivermouth.
Bathrooms: No restrooms available.
Perks for Parents: Hiking trails in the area wind through coastal redwoods. Let the baby sleep in the carrier while you marvel at these unique trees.
Where to Stay with Kids: Mendocino’s many inns and bed and breakfasts are perfect for a romantic getaway. With kids, however, you may want to avoid those small, immaculately decorated rooms and go for a vacation rental. Find one on VRBO.
Baby-friendly Restaurants: Fill up your picnic basket at Corners of the Mouth, an old church-turned-organic grocery full of California hippies and healthy treats. (45015 Ukiah St.)
What Else to Do: Sort through smooth pieces of colorful glass at Glass Beach, 15 minutes north of Mendocino in Fort Bragg. The glass remnants are an interesting reminder of the beach’s past as a garbage dump.