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: -121.66887

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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 towards 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 our most recent visit in November 2018 after a particularly vicious Dry Season that resulted in California’s deadliest and most damaging wildfires in the state’s recorded history (so far).

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

It seemed like the uppermost tiers of this cascade 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). So that kind of gives you an indication of how peaceful this nature walk was.

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

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.

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


Canyon Falls is administered by the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. For more information, questions, and current conditions, you can check out the California Department of Parks and Recreation website.

JP_Burns_SP_047_04022015 - This is the payment kiosk at the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
JP_Burns_SP_003_04022015 - Heading towards the inland part of the car park at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
JP_Burns_SP_004_04022015 - Walking past the sign marking the official start of the Canyon Trail
JP_Burns_SP_005_04022015 - The Canyon Trail was wide and well-developed at the beginning of the hike
JP_Burns_SP_006_04022015 - There were some picnic tables along the beginning of the Canyon Trail
JP_Burns_SP_009_04022015 - Probably at about 5-10 minutes into the hike, I started to get confused about the trail shortly after this unbridged crossing of McWay Creek
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
JP_Burns_SP_010_04022015 - I knew that I had regained the Canyon Trail once I saw this sign
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_019_11172018 - The new trail actually briefly ascends and follows the Ewoldsen Trail before descending back down towards the creek
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.  It was because the trail was re-routed since the fire around 2009!
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_022_11172018 - Julie continuing on the Canyon 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
JP_Burns_SP_025_04022015 - A couple of kids approaching Canyon Falls provided a sense of scale as to how small this waterfall was
JP_Burns_SP_029_04022015 - This was as close to Canyon Falls' base as I went. 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
JP_Burns_SP_042_04022015 - As I was hiking back towards the car park, I chanced upon this scene, which was about as naturesque and peaceful as they come
JP_Burns_SP_046_04022015 - Back at the confusing part of the trail near the creek crossing. The thin ropes I guess were supposed to act as a guide somehow
Canyon_Falls_001_03292003 - Canyon Falls as seen back in 2003
Canyon_Falls_004_03292003 - Another look at Canyon Falls in 2003
McWay_Falls_057_03182010 - Canyon Falls closure in 2010


This waterfall shares the same car park as that of McWay Falls. See that page for directions.

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).

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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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

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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