McWay Falls

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

About McWay Falls


Hiking Distance: 0.6 mile round trip; wheelchair
Suggested Time: 20 minutes

Date first visited: 2001-03-31
Date last visited: 2018-11-17

Waterfall Latitude: 36.15781
Waterfall Longitude: -121.67115

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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 six times or more over the years.

JP_Burns_SP_112_04022015 - Closeup of McWay Falls
Closeup of McWay Falls

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.

In addition to the picturesque (but inaccessible) cove, on a recent visit in 2018, we noticed for the first time that there was actually a sea arch almost behind the waterfall itself!

And 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. Indeed, we quickly understood why Big Sur had a reputation for being the best place to witness where the ocean meets the sky.

It’s no wonder why we never get tired of this place (despite the increase in the number of visitors here, especially with the blow up on social media. Come to think of it, this waterfall and its location really embodied the rugged beauty that epitomized Big Sur.

Landslides

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.

McWay_Falls_043_03182010 - Panoramic view of McWay Falls and McWay Cove at sunset
Panoramic view of McWay Falls and McWay Cove at sunset

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. Other landslides have occurred that closed Hwy 1 for another couple of years prior to our latest visit in 2018.

Anyways, such landslides are why the authorities urge people not to try to scramble down the cliffs to access the beach at McWay Cove.

Experiencing McWay Falls

As for the waterfalling experience, we began at the main car park (there was a $10 fee as of our latest visits in 2010, 2015 and 2018; see see directions below for getting to the car park).

We then descended a path that began 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.

JP_Burns_SP_052_04022015 - The Pelton Wheel
The Pelton Wheel

The wheel was basically a small hydroelectric faciilty currently housing a small turbine. However, it once employed cups at the ends of each spoke in a waterwheel to maximize the force of the year-round McWay Creek falling onto it.

The electricity generated by the reliable McWay Creek fed the Saddle Rock Ranch that Christopher McWay homesteaded nearby in the late 19th century.

While the original wheel was on display like a museum exhibit artifact, the more modernized turbine looked to still be in use given the presence of transformers and wirings behind a small room with a window to peer into.

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.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_037_11172018 - Julie approaching the tunnel underneath the Hwy 1
Julie approaching the tunnel underneath the Hwy 1

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 a more 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.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_083_11172018 - McWay Falls as seen from Hwy 1 late in the Dry Season. Notice the hard-to-see sea arch behind the falls
McWay Falls as seen from Hwy 1 late in the Dry Season. Notice the hard-to-see sea arch behind the falls

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 (though it was fenced off on a visit in 2018).

Apparently, if you’re lucky enough to find parking along Hwy 1 and this shortcut path is open, then 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.

Authorities

McWay 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 - At the payment kiosk guarding the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
JP_Burns_SP_049_04022015 - Julie and Tahia embarking on the short trail leading down to both the Pelton Wheel and McWay Falls
JP_Burns_SP_050_04022015 - Here's the signposted junction branching off towards the Pelton Wheel
JP_Burns_SP_059_04022015 - 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 use
JP_Burns_SP_051_04022015 - The well-established trail just past the Pelton Wheel junction
JP_Burns_SP_061_04022015 - The cliff-hugging trail leading to better views of McWay Falls, the Waterfall Cove, and the Waterfall House ruins
McWay_Falls_048_03182010 - We didn't recall seeing this arched treeway on our previous visits, but it's cool nonetheless
JP_Burns_SP_069_04022015 - This was a more recent look back along the precarious Waterfall Trail in 2015
JP_Burns_SP_068_04022015 - Wide open view of Waterfall Cove in 2015
JP_Burns_SP_066_04022015 - Closeup look at McWay Falls
McWay_Falls_040_03182010 - Contextual view of the walkway and the falls
JP_Burns_SP_070_04022015 - Approaching the foundations and ruins of the Waterfall House beyond the main viewing spots for McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove
JP_Burns_SP_090_04022015 - This was pretty much what was left of the Waterfall House
JP_Burns_SP_092_04022015 - 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 here
JP_Burns_SP_097_cropped_04022015 - An unexpected surprise on our 2015 visit here was this sea otter (or sea lion?) doing a backstroke in McWay Cove
JP_Burns_SP_111_04022015 - This was the view of McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove from the Waterfall House
JP_Burns_SP_114_04022015 - Julie and Tahia leaving the Waterfall House area
JP_Burns_SP_116_04022015 - After passing through the tunnel again, this was the view of the Waterfall Trail as we were headed back towards the car park
McWay_Falls_015_03182010 - Here's a look at the beautiful Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls opening out to the Pacific Ocean in 2010
McWay_Falls_051_03182010 - Big Sur sunset at McWay Falls.  Can it get any better than this?
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_069_11172018 - It wasn't until our most recent visit in November 2018 that we noticed it was possible to view McWay Falls right from Highway 1. Even after sunset, notice there were people still crowding around the main overlook below
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_087_11172018 - McWay Falls as seen from Hwy 1 late in the Dry Season. Hard to believe that after all the years we've stopped by here, we had never checked it out from this vantage point
McWay_Falls_013_07282002 - How the falls looked in July 2002
McWay_Falls_009_07282002 - Closeup of McWay Falls from July 2002
McWay_Falls_001_scanned_03312001 - How the falls looked on a morning in March 2001

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McWay Falls is situated in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which was along Hwy 1 about 42 miles (roughly 90 minutes drive) south of Monterey and 94 miles (about 2 hours drive) north of San Luis Obispo.

For context, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was about 282 miles (about 6 hours drive) northwest of Los Angeles and 112 miles (under 3 hours drive) south of San Jose.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_076_11172018 - Looking south along Highway 1 towards the turnoff for the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Looking south along Highway 1 towards the turnoff for the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The well-signed entrance to the park is off 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 few visits in 2010, 2015, and 2018), 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!

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)


Brief sweep checking out the roadside view of McWay Cove revealing a surprise natural sea arch behind the waterfall

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



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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

Big Sur Visit Last Summer March 22, 2010 8:07 pm by Ron Andrews - 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. ...Read More

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