McWay Falls

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park / Big Sur / Monterey County, California, USA

Rating: 4     Difficulty: 1
McWay Falls
McWay Falls is easily one of the most beautifully situated waterfalls on the California Coast. Its impossibly scenic location is what makes this waterfall unique and a place we never get tired of seeing no matter how many times we've been here.

The waterfall is said to drop some 80ft into a beach situated within a picturesque 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 embodies the rugged beauty that epitomizes Big Sur.

Once at the car park (there was a $10 fee as of our last visit in 2010; see directions below for getting to the car park), we took a very gentle 1/4-mile walk bypassing some waterwheel and passing through a tin tunnel before the dramatic scene unfolded as it opened out to the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the tunnel.

As we continued along the well-established path, we looked to our left over the cliffs and towards the cove, and that was where saw the lovely McWay Falls spilling onto a beach shortly before it joined the ocean. We've heard that some people consider this waterfall to be a tidefall because it more-or-less falls directly into the ocean, and that might be true at high tide.

Although we've seen footprints on the sand in that cove below, the scramble to get down there looked very steep and dangerous, especially considering that the cliffs were unstable. We've never done it and we certainly don't recommend it. In fact, we've read that there was a landslide here that made McWay Falls spill onto a beach instead of directly into the ocean several decades ago.

Beyond the section of the trail where we could see McWay Falls, the trail continued towards the site of the Waterfall House ruins. There wasn't much there anymore except some additional coastal views between trees.

And finally, if you're up for some more exploring in the area, you can also visit Canyon Falls whose trail begins on the opposite side of the day use car park.

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Closeup of McWay Falls
Another look at the impossibly beautiful cove containing McWay Falls
Big Sur sunset at McWay Falls.  Can it get any better than this?
McWay Falls was just one of several signature attractions along the Big Sur Coast. It's a reason why Julie and I seriously considered getting married out hereMcWay Falls was just one of several signature attractions along the Big Sur Coast. It's a reason why Julie and I seriously considered getting married out here
We didn't recall seeing this arched treeway on our previous visits, but it's cool nonethelessWe didn't recall seeing this arched treeway on our previous visits, but it's cool nonetheless

Contextual view of the walkway and the fallsContextual view of the walkway and falls

How the falls looked in July 2002How the falls looked in July 2002

Closeup of McWay Falls from July 2002Closeup of McWay Falls from July 2002

How the falls looked on a morning in March 2001How the falls looked on a morning in March 2001

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Bottom up sweep of the falls starting at the beach and fixated on the falls itself

Left to right sweep starting at the falls and ending at the setting sun (with a little camera artifact from light saturation coming from the sun)

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The falls is situated in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

You can find its 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, 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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For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.

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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.

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