McWay Falls was easily one of the most beautifully situated waterfalls on the California Coast that Julie and I have encountered. Its impossibly scenic location (as you can see in the photos on this page) was what made this waterfall unique and a place we never get tired of seeing no matter how many times we've been here. I swear that every time we've visited the Big Sur Coast, we've made at least one stop to this falls so I'd imagine we had to have been at this falls at least five times or more.
The waterfall is said to drop some 80ft into a beach situated within a picturesque cove (McWay Cove; also called Waterfall Cove) opening out to the Pacific Ocean. While the scene is beautiful at almost any time of day, we were treated to a really special sight when we showed up right at sunset. That was when the warm glow of the setting sun painted both the falls and the neighboring cove a warm yellow and orange. On top of that, we quickly understood why Big Sur had a reputation for being the best place to witness where the ocean meets the sky, which was gained after witnessing that special sight of a Big Sur sunset. It's no wonder why we never get tired of this place. Come to think of it, this waterfall and its location really emodied the rugged beauty that epitomized Big Sur.
One of the more unique aspects about this waterfall was that it more-or-less fell directly into the ocean. In fact, we've seen in the literature that the term tide fall to categorize such ocean-bound waterfalls was coined thanks to McWay Falls. That said, signs here showed how the falls looked both before and after a major landslide in 1983. Prior to that major event, the falls did indeed fall directly into the ocean. Now, it mostly falls on a beach resulting from the landslide, and I'd imagine only under high tide would the falls once again touch the ocean directly. By the way, that major landslide (which closed Hwy 1 for nearly a year and was said to be visible from space) illustrated the inherent instability of the cliffs here, and it's why the authorities urge people not to try to scramble down the cliffs to access the beach at McWay Cove.
As for the waterfalling experience, we began at the main car park (there was a $10 fee as of our latest visits in 2010 and 2015; see see directions below for getting to the car park). We then descended a path near the entrance kiosk, which took us on a well-defined trail leading towards the ocean. After a few steps towards the ocean, we noticed a short spur path to the left leading to the signposted Pelton Wheel. The wheel was basically a small hydroelectric faciilty that once harnessed the reliable McWay Creek to create electricity for the Saddle Rock Ranch that Christopher McWay homesteaded nearby in the late 19th century. It didn't appear that the wheel was in use despite all the infrastructure and wiring that looked like it still could've been used today.
Back on the main trail, we then followed it through a circular corrugated tin tunnel beneath Hwy 1 before emerging through the other end as the dramatic scenery of the Pacific Ocean fronted by steep cliffs opened before us. At that point, we kept right and walked along the cliff-hugging trail (with rails to minimize dropoff exposure) as it provided views of Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls along the way. The trail continued towards the ruins of the Waterfall House, which now was nothing more than terraced foundations surrounded by trees along with some interpretive signs discussing the history of the area including the major landslide in 1983. I swore that when we first visited this place back in 2001, the Waterfall House was very overgrown with trees. However, on our most recent visit in 2015, the area seemed more cleared of foliage so we were able to get dramatic coastal views to the north as well as different views of McWay Falls to the south.
It seemed like McWay Falls and the dramatic coastal scenery was best seen in the afternoon when the setting sun would paint the surrounding cliffs and trees a warm yellowish-orange light while bringing out the blue colors of the water. In the morning, the area would mostly be in shadow so I'd imagine the best time of day to come here would be the early afternoon all the way to sunset (if you're interested in seeing the sunset here as well, which Julie and I did back in 2010).
All in all, the walk from the main car park to the Waterfall House and back was about a half-mile round trip. That said, we noticed that there was also trail access from Hwy 1 to the McWay Falls and Waterfall House ruins as well. Apparently, if you're lucky enough to find parking along Hwy 1, you can avoid paying the state park fee. But in our experiences here, it's often not worth the trouble to compete for spots along the busy Hwy 1 just to save a few bucks in cash.
Finally, if you're up for some more exploring of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you can visit Canyon Falls whose trail begins on the opposite side of the official day use car park.
McWay Falls is situated in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which was about 42 miles south of Monterey and 94 miles north of San Luis Obispo. You can find its well-signed car park a short distance inland from a well-signed turnoff on the Hwy 1 in the heart of the Big Sur Coast (about 7 miles south of Deetjen's and 13 miles north of Lucia Lodge).
Finally, if you're not up for parking in the lot that requires the hefty day use fee (it was $10 as of our last couple of visits in 2010 and 2015), we've noticed some people park at some pullouts on Hwy 1 before the bridge over McWay Creek. Then, there's a trail on the opposite side of Hwy 1, which ultimately joins the main walkway right at the end of the tin tunnel.
Whether or not you decide to do the falls this way, keep in mind that the pullouts on Hwy 1 are near a blind turn (as you're heading north). We nearly hit a guy who pulled out right in front of us as we turned that corner heading north. So northbound drivers, those getting back on the road from those pullouts, and walkers crossing the highway really need to be cognizant of the hazard here!
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What Other Visitors Have Said
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Big Sur Visit Last Summer I agree that the California coast is a unique place in the world. I spent a couple days in the Big Sur area last summer.