About Mendocino Headlands

Once described to be a "candy village made of dinner mints and red licorice," Mendocino greets northbound visitors with increased traffic and endless B and Bs and is backed by the enchanting Mendocino Headlands and lineup of tourist shops. Not exactly a core destination for surfers, Victorian Mendocino will please anybody who gets a kick out of sugar-sweet, New England-style seaside burgs.

The coastline here is convoluted with cliffs and rocks, but the shore drops off deeply at most places, making it a cold paradise for diving and abalone hunting. All said, if there's a clean, big winter swell bearing down, you might have some luck at Smuggler's Cove, inside of Mendocino Bay, on the south side of the Big River. Smuggler's is a mushy, fat reef peak that only works during winter swells bigger than 6 to 8 feet. Generally a weak wave that's best at low tide, it can be fun for longboarding.

North of that is the mouth of the Big River's 1,500-acre estuary -- kind of a washy, current-ridden, shallow lineup that's best at high tide with small, peaky swells. Usually pretty walled, Big River can produce some fun waves, and it's real easy to check from Highway 1. An OK beachbreak when the rest of the coast is flat, but it'll almost always be better down south or up north.

There are a couple of reefs on the other side of the headland (Heeser Drive), but they're super finicky and not worth your effort. A couple of minutes up the highway will take you to Caspar Creek, a small cove that's good for beginners. A gravelly beachbreak, Caspar needs a giant swell to break since it's so protected. There are a few rocks at the south end, but the sandy bottom occasionally cooperates to form some fun peaks. Any tide is workable as long as the surf is clean -- a good spot to surf when the rest of the coast is maxed out and/or blown out.

Source: Mendocino Headlands Surf Guide

Ability Level

Beginner - intermediate

Beg Int Adv


Local Vibe


Welcoming Intimidating


Crowd Factor


Mellow Heavy

Not much at Smuggler's; plan on surfing with everyone.

Spot Rating


Poor Perfect

Kinda fun.

Shoulder Burn


Light Exhausting

Not too bad.

Water Quality


Clean Dirty

Mostly clean.

Additional Information




For Smuggler's, take the steep, slippery trail down from the vista point south of the Big River bridge; for Big River, park in the lot behind the church and take the staircase to the beach; for Caspar Creek, exit Highway 1 onto Point Cabrillo Drive and drive down to the sandy beach below Caspar.

Bring Your

Funboard, longboard, fish


Rock at Smuggler's; sand at Big River and Caspar Creek.

Best Season


Swell Consistency and Wind Overview

Photos & Videos