McWay Falls

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

Rating: 4     Difficulty: 1
McWay Falls
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.

Closeup of McWay Falls 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.

The Pelton Wheel 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.




[Back to top]
PHOTO JOURNAL
Another look at the impossibly beautiful cove containing McWay Falls near sunsetAnother look at the impossibly beautiful cove containing McWay Falls near sunset
This was the dramatic coastal view looking north from the lookout at the Waterfall HouseThis was the dramatic coastal view looking north from the lookout at the Waterfall House
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
Although there was no safe beach access from the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just 11 miles to the north near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was Pfeiffer Beach, which featured this little sea archAlthough there was no safe beach access from the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just 11 miles to the north near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was Pfeiffer Beach, which featured this little sea arch
At the payment kiosk guarding the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkAt the payment kiosk guarding the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julie and Tahia embarking on the short trail leading down to both the Pelton Wheel and McWay FallsJulie and Tahia embarking on the short trail leading down to both the Pelton Wheel and waterfall

Here's the signposted junction branching off towards the Pelton WheelHere's the signposted junction branching off towards the Pelton Wheel

This was a look inside one of the two rooms of the small hydroelectric facility of the Pelton Wheel, which looked like it had equipment suitable for continued useThis was a look inside one of the two rooms of the small hydroelectric facility of the Pelton Wheel, which looked like it had equipment suitable for continued use

The well-established trail just past the Pelton Wheel junctionThe well-established trail just past the Pelton Wheel junction

The cliff-hugging trail leading to better views of McWay Falls, the Waterfall Cove, and the Waterfall House ruinsThe cliff-hugging trail leading to better views of McWay Falls, the Waterfall Cove, and the Waterfall House ruins

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 (this was seen back in 2010)

This was a more recent look back along the precarious Waterfall Trail in 2015This was a more recent look back along the precarious Waterfall Trail in 2015

Wide open view of Waterfall Cove in 2015Wide open view of Waterfall Cove in 2015

Closeup look at McWay FallsCloseup look at the falls

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

Approaching the foundations and ruins of the Waterfall House beyond the main viewing spots for McWay Falls and Waterfall CoveApproaching the foundations and ruins of the Waterfall House beyond the main viewing spots for McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove

This was pretty much what was left of the Waterfall HouseThis was pretty much what was left of the Waterfall House

This was the lookout from the terrace at the Waterfall House in 2015.  I swore it was much more overgrown than this back in 2001 when we first came hereThis was the lookout from the terrace at the Waterfall House in 2015. I swore it was much more overgrown than this back in 2001 when we first came here

An unexpected surprise on our 2015 visit here was this sea otter (or sea lion?) doing a backstroke in McWay CoveAn unexpected surprise on our 2015 visit here was this sea otter (or sea lion?) doing a backstroke in McWay Cove

This was the view of McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove from the Waterfall HouseThis was the view of McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove from the Waterfall House

Julie and Tahia leaving the Waterfall House areaJulie and Tahia leaving the Waterfall House area

After passing through the tunnel again, this was the view of the Waterfall Trail as we were headed back towards the car parkAfter passing through the tunnel again, this was the view of the Waterfall Trail as we were headed back towards the car park

Here's a look at the beautiful Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls opening out to the Pacific Ocean in 2010Here's a look at the beautiful Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls opening out to the Pacific Ocean in 2010

Big Sur sunset at McWay Falls.  Can it get any better than this?Big Sur sunset at McWay Falls. Can it get any better than this?

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


[Back to top]

VIDEOS OF THE FALLS

Left to right sweep of McWay Cove on a beautiful day


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)


[Back to top]

DIRECTIONS
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!




[Back to top]

MAP OF THE FALLS


Click here for the full World of Waterfalls map





[Back to top]

TRIP REPORTS
For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.




[Back to top]

TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES




[Back to top]

NEARBY WATERFALLS


Have You Been To This Waterfall?

Share your experience!

Click here to see visitor comments for this waterfall

Click here to see visitor comments for other waterfalls that we've visited in this region

Click here to go to the Comments Main Page

You can use the form below, but if you find our host's interface too troublesome to use (especially if you're trying to upload photos), then just send a text submission anyways using the form, but also let us know that you'd like to attach photos. If you've provided an email address via the form, then we can reply back acknowledging your request, and you can then reply to that email with your photo attachments. We're very sorry about this, but there's not much we can do about SBI's terrible interface.

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

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.

Click here to write your own.



[Back to top]

[Go to the Big Sur & Bay Area Waterfalls Page]

[Go to the California Page]

[Return from McWay Falls to the World of Waterfalls Home Page]





FOLLOW US ON:   Facebook   Twitter   Pinterest

Quick Navigation:


If you like this page,
you might also like...

Big Sur & Bay Area Waterfalls
Big Sur & Bay Area
Waterfalls

Southern California's Top 10 Waterfalls
Southern California's
Top 10

Featured Visitor Stories
or Comments


A Wet Day
First, thanks for this cool website its nice to know about hidden gems in our backyard. We went on May 24th, 2008 and had the pleasure of seeing a running stream all the way...[more]


Moon Walking & Rock Slides
We would climb up the falls along the crevice to the left of the falls all the way up then over to the chute to the left of the falls and run down the gravel chute...[more]


CMarie (Upper Escondido Falls)
This hike is AMAZING! I was happy going through this trail with a few friends as it was quite pretty. The road up is a long one and there were...[more]


Burney Falls - Burney, California
Glad to know there are waterfall lovers like myself. I am enjoying the website. I thought I would post to you a picture of a waterfall in California that is...[more]


Three Sisters Waterfall - San Diego, CA
I was so surprised not to see the Three Sisters Waterfall in Descanso, CA (San Diego County) on your list & then remembered it's a fairly well kept secret...[more]


Heart Rock Falls
I absolutely loved the scenery of this whole hike and destination. It was very confusing to get there and we had to make a few U-Turns, but it was definitely worth...[more]


Blackstar Canyon - Hidden Falls of Orange County
About a year ago, I was given a newspaper article describing these hidden falls in Orange County. The article itself did not specify the exact location, so I did some hunting online...[more]


Emerald Falls (near Fillmore, CA)
Here is what I can only assume is called "Emerald Falls" just north of Filmore in Southern California. (In Los Padres National Forest) I think it is hands down...[more]