Canyon Falls

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

About Canyon Falls

Hiking Distance: 3/4-1 mile round trip
Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes

Date first visited: 2003-03-29
Date last visited: 2018-11-17

Waterfall Latitude: 36.16315
Waterfall Longitude: -121.66416

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

Canyon Falls was the unfortunate overshadowed neighbor to the gorgeous McWay Falls as they share the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

That said, its “unfortunate” location may also be fortunate if one was looking for a relatively peaceful and relaxing waterfall hike away from the commotion further downstream around McWay Cove.

JP_Burns_SP_038_04022015 - Canyon Falls
Canyon Falls

In fact, while McWay Falls gets the lion’s share of social media shares (and the associated crowds that come with it), Julie and I really savored the relative solitude of its less-visited counterpart.

Further adding to the appeal was that since it’s on McWay Creek, Canyon Falls also has a year-round flow, which we could corroborate from a visit in November 2018 after a particularly vicious Dry Season.

Also, the forested setting possessed more of a subtle beauty as opposed to the dramatic scenery seen along the rugged Big Sur Coast.

Nevertheless, I guess the main reason for the lack of fanfare of Canyon Falls was perhaps its rather tiny size, which was probably on the order of 20-30ft.

Accessing Canyon Falls

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_010_11172018 - Relatively quiet experience on the trail to Canyon Falls
Relatively quiet experience on the trail to Canyon Falls

The key to visiting Canyon Falls was to walk in the opposite direction of McWay Falls from the parking area (yep, you’re going away from the ocean instead of towards it; see directions below).

Beyond the parking lot, the well-defined trail meandered past a small picnic area with a handful of picnic tables before following McWay Creek amidst a shady coastal forest.

At about 10-15 minutes into the trail, a new bridge traversing McWay Creek made the continuation of the trail a bit easier to follow.

In the past, this was the part where we tended to get confused about where we were supposed to be walking next.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_013_11172018 - The trail to Canyon Falls followed along the perennial McWay Creek
The trail to Canyon Falls followed along the perennial McWay Creek

I’m pretty sure we weren’t alone in our confusion, and perhaps that bridge and re-routing of the trail would reduce the inevitable erosion caused by off-trail scrambling.

There was also a fork where the path continuing further upstream was the Ewoldsen Trail (not the waterfall trail).

Continuing further upstream along McWay Creek’s southeastern banks after a few minutes more, we finally managed to make it to Canyon Falls (roughly a little over a half-mile from the main car park; or one mile return).

I wasn’t sure if the trail kept going beyond the waterfall as it wasn’t obvious to me where it continued, but it did get me right up to the small three-tiered cascade.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_025_11172018 - After the confusing part of the trail (which shouldn't be once they finish the footbridge over McWay Creek), the canyon narrows in as the path gets closer to Canyon Falls
After the confusing part of the trail (which shouldn’t be once they finish the footbridge over McWay Creek), the canyon narrows in as the path gets closer to Canyon Falls

It seemed like the uppermost tiers of Canyon Falls could best seen from further downstream away from the falls as they started to become hidden from view the closer to the falls I had gotten.

In any case, I saw perhaps less than a dozen other people while hiking this trail (contrasting with the hundreds of people sharing the McWay Falls side), which kind of gives you an indication of how peaceful this nature walk was.

As for photographing the falls, it seemed like the best lighting would occur on a cloudy day.

Our 2015 visit was under clear blue skies late in the afternoon so the sporadic shadows from the forest kind of made taking satisfactory pictures rather difficult.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_031_11172018 - Closeup view of Canyon Falls under the even lighting of a marine layer
Closeup view of Canyon Falls under the even lighting of a marine layer

Our 2018 visit was under marine layer overcast skies, which yielded the more satisfying even lighting.


Canyon Falls resides in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur in Monterey County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For more information, questions, and current conditions, you can check out their website.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_007_11172018 - The trail to Canyon Falls was actually closed during our visit in November 2018 due to fire damage. However, that didn't stop a handful of people to see what the damage was anyways
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_011_11172018 - Julie walking past some picnic tables and grills en route to the Canyon Falls
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_015_11172018 - This closure barricade was to prevent people from attempting to use the bridge to traverse McWay Creek. Fortunately, we didn't really need the bridge to do that
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_018_11172018 - Hopefully the confusion (and subsequent erosion that occurs with the haphazard scrambling) will go away when this footbridge over McWay Creek is complete
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_019_11172018 - The new Canyon Falls Trail actually briefly ascends and follows the Ewoldsen Trail before descending back down towards the creek
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_022_11172018 - Julie continuing on the Canyon Falls Trail well after the creek crossing, where the trail itself became narrower and rockier as the canyon was closing in
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_027_11172018 - Even late in the Dry Season as of this visit in mid-November 2018, Canyon Falls still maintained a healthy flow, which proved to us that this was indeed a rare year-round waterfall on the Big Sur Coast
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_033_11172018 - Looking upstream at the context of Canyon Falls with the rocky and deadfall context fronting the waterfall
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_035_11172018 - Julie heading back after having her fill of the Canyon Falls during our November 2018 visit
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_036_11172018 - Julie heading back past the picnic tables on her way to the trailhead after having had her fill of the Canyon Falls in November 2018
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_037_11172018 - Now, it was time to rejoin the crowds checking out McWay Falls during our November 2018 visit
JP_Burns_SP_047_04022015 - This is the payment kiosk at the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as seen during our April 2015 visit. This photo and the next several photos came from this day
JP_Burns_SP_003_04022015 - Heading towards the inland part of the car park at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_004_04022015 - Walking past the sign marking the official start of the Canyon Trail during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_005_04022015 - Julie and Tahia on the wide and well-developed Canyon Trail at the beginning of the hike in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_006_04022015 - Julie and Tahia passing by some picnic tables along the beginning of the Canyon Trail during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_009_04022015 - Probably at about 5-10 minutes into the Canyon Falls hike, I started to get confused about the trail shortly after this unbridged crossing of McWay Creek during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_010_04022015 - I knew that I had regained the Canyon Trail once I saw this sign during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_011_04022015 - Continuing on the Canyon Trail after the unbridged creek crossing during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_022_04022015 - This was the Canyon Falls as we saw it in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_025_04022015 - A couple of kids approaching Canyon Falls provided a sense of scale as to how small this waterfall was during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_029_04022015 - This was as close to Canyon Falls' base as I went during my April 2015 visit. Note the difficult lighting conditions wreaking havoc on my photos in the late afternoon
JP_Burns_SP_033_04022015 - Here's a direct look at Canyon Falls from just near its base as seen during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_042_04022015 - As I was hiking back towards the trailhead on our April 2015 visit, I chanced upon this scene, which was about as naturesque and peaceful as they come
JP_Burns_SP_043_04022015 - This closure sign clued me in as to why I was so confused about the Canyon Trail by the creek crossing during our April 2015 visit.  It was because the trail was re-routed since the fire around 2009!
JP_Burns_SP_046_04022015 - Back at the confusing part of the trail near the creek crossing during our April 2015 visit. The thin ropes I guess were supposed to act as a guide somehow
McWay_Falls_057_03182010 - Canyon Falls closure in 2010
Canyon_Falls_001_03292003 - Canyon Falls as seen back in March 2003
Canyon_Falls_004_03292003 - Another look at Canyon Falls in March 2003

This waterfall shares the same car park as that of McWay Falls.

See that page for directions.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_006_11172018 - The parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Contextually, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park sat 42 miles south of Monterey and 94 miles north of San Luis Obispo (itself being about 3.5 hours drive from Los Angeles).

Find A Place To Stay

Upstream to downstream sweep from right in front of the falls

Checking out the falls in low season flow still doing fairly well

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Tagged with: big sur, monterey, bay area, central coast, california, waterfall, julia pfeiffer burns, ventana, ewoldsen trail

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Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP March 22, 2010 8:16 pm by Ron Andrews - The Canyon Trail was closed last summer when we visited, but there were still some small waterfalls upstream from McWay Falls that I could get to. ...Read More

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About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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