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Posted by on Oct 7, 2014 | 2 comments

McWay Falls

“Do you know where I can find the waterfall,” a girl in her early twenties asked me while showing off her Portuguese accent.

“Actually, I am not sure but I think we are close.” I answered without hesitation. In reality, I had no idea of what I was talking about.  I was just following the crowds.

The girl started to take some pictures and we left her behind.  A few steps got me over a narrow bridge. As I got on my tiptoes to take a look at what was under, I got the first glimpse of the waterfall.

McWay Cove and Falls, Big Sur, California

I saw the young lady walking towards me and I shouted, “Here is the waterfall.”  She hurried up and took a look.  Next thing I knew, she was jumping and giggling like a three year old.  I totally got her excitement.  I felt like jumping too but I only was able to express a delightful smile.

Minutes before the encounter (with the girl AND with the waterfall!), we approached the very crowded Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park.  The parking lot was closed and there was no street parking close to the entrance.

Securing a parking spot involved driving about two miles north of the entrance, illegal u-turns and hopes for cliff stability.  Let just say our actions were worth the effort (even when I huffed and puffed to get back to the car since north means up here).

Our objective was to admire McWay Falls. Yes, I am referring to that famous waterfall that empties directly into the ocean and that has been probably featured in every California photo contest you can think about.

McWay Cove and Falls, Big Sur, California

The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has exquisite natural features such as meadows, creeks and redwood forests. However, the main attraction is the falls. This particular time, I was on the side of the crowds and had time for the bare minimal (which is kind of a crime in places like this).

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

For those in a hurry or making quick road trip stops (yup, like me!), the falls can be appreciated from the street (CA-1).  Of course, for those in search of better views, the Waterfall Trail inside the park is recommended (this will take you to an overview area).

McWay Cove and Falls, Big Sur, California

Even though this specific site is popular, I find it interesting for several reasons.  Consider the following:

  • The waterfall is 80-foot tall.  That is 13 times higher than a 6-foot tall person.  It looks small in the distance but it is higher than it appears.
  • There are not many waterfalls that empty in the ocean.
  • The waterfall used to cascade directly over the ocean (there are pictures on the site showing this).  The topography of the cove changed after a fire and landslide (1983 and 1985 respectively).  Nowadays, the waterfall cascades over a beach and over the ocean during high tide.
  • In the 1920s, two houses with a waterfall view where built in the present overlook area.  I wander how much one of those houses will cost today. What is left (the foundation) and other artifacts can be seen during a visit.

In addition, I was blown away by the complexity of the panorama.  I know people like to focus on the waterfall and on the vibrant water colors. Nevertheless, there is a lot to see once you approach the cove.  To be honest, I felt overwhelmed and couldn’t figure out where to focus my eyes first.

McWay Cove and Falls, Big Sur, California


McWay Cove, Big Sur, California


Tree in McWay Cove, Big Sur, California

To start, the cove protecting the falls is surrounded by tall rocks.  Only a small space is open to the sea.  Then, there are cypresses, bushes, flowers, moss and even an arch formed by the waves.  I tried hard to take in the different elements, colors and textures.

McWay Cove and Falls, Big Sur, California

The cove located north of McWay Cove is precious too.  It can be seen from the other side of the overlook area.

Cove located north of McWay Cove, Big Sur, California


Cove located north of McWay Cove, Big Sur, California


Cove located north of McWay Cove, Big Sur, California


Cove located north of McWay Cove, Big Sur, California

I didn’t see the girl, who asked me about the waterfall, again.  I think she took a picture, maybe a selfie, and continued her journey.  Like I said, I felt deep inside her initial enthusiasm.  Come on, we were in front of a famous landmark! But I tried to stretch my time with the notorious waterfall.  And believe me, that time wasn’t enough to absorb all the beauty of the place.


  • The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located 37 miles south of Carmel in Big Sur.
  • Parking spaces are available inside the park (need to pay a fee).
  • You can also park in the street but be careful since the area is full of blind curves.
  • If you visit during a weekend or holiday, I can assure you the park’s parking lot is going to be closed (unless you arrive super early).  In that case, prepare to park on the street (and prepare to walk since it is not easy to find a spot close to the entrance).
  • Even if you are in a hurry, take your time to appreciate the details surrounding the cove.
  • Remember there is more to the park than the waterfall.  Find more info here:

Have you visited McWay Falls?


    • Charles,
      I am fascinating with Monterey County. There are so many things to see! I bet you know Big Sur very well. Since this was my first visit, I only had time for some stops. I am planning to go back an camp in the area.

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