This article highlights McWay Falls, a natural gem located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and considered one of the premier spots in Big Sur, California!
“Do you know where I can find the waterfall?” a lady 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 what I was talking about. I was just following the crowds.
The lady 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.
I saw the young lady walking towards me and I shouted, “Here is the waterfall.” She hurried up and took a look. The 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 instead expressed my delight with a big, wide smile.
Minutes before the encounter (with the lady 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, a couple of 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.
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 minimum (which is kind of a crime in places like this).
For those in a hurry or making short road trip stops (yup, like me!), the falls can be appreciated from the road (CA-1, technically, Cabrillo Highway but people call it Pacific Coast Highway). 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).
Even though this specific site is popular, I find it interesting for several reasons. Consider the following:
- The McWay Falls 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. This type of waterfall is called “tide fall.”
- The McWay Falls 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 were built in the present overlook area. I wonder how much one of those houses will cost today. What is left (the foundation) and other artifacts can be observed during a visit.
- California has another tide fall. Alamere Falls is located in Point Reyes National Seashore.
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 turquoise sea. 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.
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.
The cove located north of McWay Cove is precious too. It can be seen from the other side of the overlook area.
I didn’t see the lady, who asked me about the waterfall, again. I think she took a picture, maybe a selfie, and continued her journey. As 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).
I saw people jumping fences or going under fences to avoid paying the park fee. If you visit, please consider following the rules and paying the appropriate fee. This will help California State Parks.
The McWay Cove is off-limits to visitors. Please follow the park’s guidelines in order to protect this fragile ecosystem.
Other than the Waterfall Overlook Trail (the trail that takes you to McWay Falls, 0.5-miles roundtrip), the park provides access to other trails: or
- Canyon Trail – 0.25 miles to a 60-foot waterfall
- Ewoldsen Trail – 5 miles looping around redwoods, you can walk less and yet observe a beautiful landscape
- Waters Ridge Trail – 1-mile to the Tin House (can be accessed through the Ewoldsen Trail)
- Tan Bark Trail – 3.2 miles to the higher parts of the park. Can reach the Tin House from here too
- Tin House Road or Fire Road – 2.3 miles to the TIn House through a dirt road closed to the public
- Partington Cove Trail – 1-mile roundtrip to a beautiful cove
Those who want to take it easy can combine the Waterfall Overlook Trail, Canyon Trail, and Partington Cove Trail. You will be able to see beautiful sights and magnificent vistas with little effort.
Check trails’ status before visiting. Trails may be closed due to weather conditions or events.
The park has two picnic sites.
Do not get confused! Two parks in Big Sur use the “Pfeiffer” last name. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is located 12 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Bruns State Park.
Even if you are in a hurry, take your time to appreciate the details surrounding the cove.
More of Big Sur
Big Sur Ultimate Road Trip Planning Guide
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Have you visited McWay Falls?
Pin for later!
Charles McCool says
Such a fantastic spot. When I lived in Monterey, I would drive down Big Sur, stop here and watch whales off the coast.
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.