Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area

a river flows between two high, green banks out to the ocean


Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) is located about ten miles south of the town of Mendocino, a small coastal village 150 miles north of San Francisco. The SMCA stretches from the river mouth at Navarro Beach northeast to the Highway 1 bridge across the Navarro River. Composed of rocky shores, tidal flats, and coastal marsh, this estuarine marine protected area (MPA) provides spawning and nursery habitat for numerous species of fish and invertebrates. At the mouth of the Navarro River, a mixture of fresh water and salty ocean water supports waterfowl, harbor seals, steelhead trout, and Dungeness crab. Sandwiched between an expansive sandy beach and the river known as the "redwood tunnel to the sea", the natural beauty of this MPA is spectacular.


It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT:

Recreational take of salmonids by hook-and-line in accordance with salmonid regulations is allowed. Take of waterfowl in accordance with general waterfowl hunting regulations is allowed. Take exemptions exist for the following tribes:

  • Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians of the Big Valley Rancheria
  • Cahto Indian Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria
  • Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians
  • Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians of the Sulphur Bank Rancheria
  • Guidiville Rancheria
  • Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake
  • Hopland Band of Pomo Indians of the Hopland Rancheria
  • Lower Lake Rancheria
  • Manchester Band of Pomo Indians of the Manchester-Point Arena Rancheria
  • Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians
  • Pinoleville Pomo Nation
  • Potter Valley Tribe
  • Redwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians
  • Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians
  • Round Valley Indian Tribes of the Round Valley Reservation
  • Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians
  • Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(27)(opens in new tab)

Quick Facts

MPA size: 0.09 square miles

Shoreline span: 1 mile

Habitat composition*:

  • Estuary: 0.06 square miles
  • Coastal marsh: 0.25 square miles

*Habitat calculations are based on 3-dimensional area and may exceed the total MPA area listed above.

About Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area

Natural History

gulls flying above the river
Sea gulls and driftwood on the beach near the river mouth at Navarro River Estuary SMCA. photo © B. Johnson, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Navarro River watershed is the largest coastal basin in Mendocino County, covering 315 square miles. This tidal river begins just south of the town of Philo, about 23 miles southeast of the SMCA in Anderson Valley. Flowing northwest, the river travels over 28 miles to the Pacific Ocean, much of it running through redwood forest on its way to the Navarro River Estuary SMCA.

From the mouth of the river, the MPA runs inland for about a mile, curving from the very wide, sandy beach to the Highway 1 Bridge. The north side of the estuary is a steep ridge that falls sharply into the river, while the south side is very low-lying and can occasionally flood during heavy rain events. Fresh water and saline ocean water mix in the estuary, creating a unique brackish water environment. It is not uncommon for a sand bar to form at the mouth of the estuary where ocean tides and river flow converge, temporarily separating the river and ocean environments.

Much of the area is lined with eelgrass beds where Dungeness crabs, ghost shrimp, and other invertebrates seek shelter. Flatfish, smelt, herring, and shiner perch use the protected estuary as a nursery ground. The estuary is also an important migration corridor for various species. Steelhead trout and coho salmon dwell in the estuary as juveniles before heading out to sea, and pass through the estuary as adults while migrating back to their spawning grounds upriver.

River otters also use the estuary as a transportation corridor and can be spotted swimming upstream. Other common wildlife sightings include roosting seabirds, harbor seals, California sea lions, and foraging shorebirds. From the beach, gray whales can occasionally be spotted out at sea as they migrate along this stretch of coast from December to April.

Cultural History

a two-story building on a riverbank below forested hillside
Captain Fletcher's Inn near Navarro River Estuary SMCA. photo © L. Kashiwada

For centuries, Native American Tribes in California have relied on marine and coastal resources. Many Native American Tribes in California continue to regularly harvest marine resources within their ancestral territories and maintain relationships with the coast for ongoing customary uses. The Navarro River Estuary SMCA is located within the territory of the Central Coast Pomo people, known as the Bokéya Pó-ma. The Pomo word for the Navarro River is Nobá Da-bida. Through a factual record of historical take within the Navarro River Estuary SMCA, several tribes are exempt from MPA regulations.

In 1851, a Scottish sailor named Captain Charles Fletcher became the first European to settle along the Navarro River. In the early 1860s, he constructed an inn on the south shore of the estuary. He sold much of his land and constructed a lumber mill in 1861. The inn mainly housed sailors waiting the three-day period for their schooners to be loaded with lumber from the Navarro Mill. Fletcher also created the first ship-building enterprise in Navarro, building schooners to haul logs from the Mendocino coast. A train rail was constructed on the north bank of the river to transport logs across the estuary.

Over time, the town of Navarro reached a population of 1,000 people. A financial crisis forced the mill to shut in 1893, and after a series of fires and an earthquake, the once bustling town was significantly reduced. Throughout its history, Captain Fletcher's Inn served as a hotel for sailors, a stagecoach stop, a fishing resort, and eventually became known as Navarro-by-the-Sea. It ceased operations in the late 1970s, was purchased by California State Parks in 1996, and is now managed by the Navarro-by-the-Sea Center, a nonprofit working to restore the historic building.


driftwood structure on sandy riverbank
Driftwood structure built on the beach by visitors. photo © C. Steeds, CC BY 2.0

Parking and a camping area are available off Highway 1 on Navarro Beach Road, located on the south side of the Navarro River Estuary SMCA. Navarro Beach Campground has 10 primitive sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. From the beach, look to the north and you may spot the striking Arch of the Navarro, a large rock arch jutting off the coastline.

The recreational take of salmonids by hook-and-line is allowed within the SMCA and fishing for steelhead is especially popular. Kayaking and canoeing are a peaceful way to explore the MPA and birdwatching opportunities abound within the estuary. West of the SMCA, Navarro Beach is a beautiful spot for beach walks and swimming. The estuary is the start of a river corridor that is surrounded by Navarro River Redwoods State Park. This 660 acre state park lines the river on either side and features spectacular redwoods.


This area consists of waters below the mean high tide line within the Navarro River Estuary, eastward of a line connecting the following two points:

39° 11.536 ′ N. lat. 123° 45.685 ′ W. long.; and
39° 11.489 ′ N. lat. 123° 45.516 ′ W. long.
and westward of a line connecting the following two points
39° 11.846 ′ N. lat. 123° 44.809 ′ W. long.; and
39° 11.803 ′ N. lat. 123° 44.843 ′ W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(27)

Downloads for Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area


Map of Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area - click to enlarge in new tab

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet - click to enlarge in new tab