Thanks so much for your thought-out reply! I will for sure look into your recommendations!
As an aside, (and FYI for this sub) we did end up trying to go backpacking in Mendocino National Forrest. I spoke to a few rangers on the phone who gave me the name of two trailheads, and ensured me that they followed a river. (Sounds nice right?) The first one we tried was Travelers Home, and it started out nice enough. But then almost 1/2 mile in things got really overgrown. We kept going as we had plenty of daylight, and even the local ranger in person had suggested we go there. 1.5 miles in things became impassable, and we could no longer find the trail. We have NEVER had to turn back, but alas, there was no water, and no where to pitch a tent. So out we went, (honestly not even a hard decision) and we left a note on the sign in sheet. We also tried another trailhead just down the road called Hellhole, and it was even worse. The notes on the sign in sheet said you couldn't even go 100 yards.
So I would avoid this place you guys. We got covered in ticks, saw very little water, and tons of poison oak. But got a nice hike out of it I guess... (once all the ticks were gone haha)
I'll look into your suggestions above, and thanks again!