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: -121.67216

McWay Falls was easily one of the most beautifully situated waterfalls on the California Coast that we’ve personally encountered.

The waterfall was where McWay Creek was said to drop some 80ft into a beach situated within the picturesque McWay Cove (also called Waterfall Cove), which opened out to the Pacific Ocean.

JP_Burns_SP_074_04022015 - McWay Falls and McWay Cove
McWay Falls and McWay Cove

We’ve even confirmed that McWay Creek was year-round as we’ve been here in different seasons from Spring through Autumn.

Its impossibly scenic location (as you can see in the photo above) 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 McWay Falls so I’d imagine we had to have been here at least six times or more over the years.

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.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_059_11172018 - McWay Falls as seen in the late afternoon of an overcast day in November of a dry year, which further proves its longevity
McWay Falls as seen in the late afternoon of an overcast day in November of a dry year, which further proves its longevity

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.

McWay_Falls_052_03182010 - Witnessing the sunset over McWay Cove
Witnessing the sunset over McWay Cove

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.

McWay Falls and Landslides

One of the more unique aspects about McWay Falls 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 this waterfall.

JP_Burns_SP_089_04022015 - Looking down the coastline from the Waterfall House location. Note the new-looking cliffs to the topright of this picture, which was where the last major landslide took place
Looking down the coastline from the Waterfall House location. Note the new-looking cliffs to the topright of this picture, which was where the last major landslide took place

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.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_046_11172018 - Even the lookout area around McWay Falls has always been a constant battle between accessibility and erosion
Even the lookout area around McWay Falls has always been a constant battle between accessibility and erosion

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 McWay Falls experience, we began at the main parking lot (there was a $10 fee as of our latest visits in 2010, 2015 and 2018; see see directions below).

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_059_04022015 - The wirings and batteries still making use of the turbine powered by the Pelton Wheel and McWay Creek
The wirings and batteries still making use of the turbine powered by the Pelton Wheel and McWay Creek

The wheel was basically a small hydroelectric faciilty currently housing a small turbine.

However, the wheel once featured 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.

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

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.

There were some interpretive signs discussing the history of the area including the major landslide in 1983.

JP_Burns_SP_090_04022015 - Looking back at the former foundations of the Waterfall House ruins, which was at the end of the short trail overlooking McWay Cove
Looking back at the former foundations of the Waterfall House ruins, which was at the end of the short trail overlooking McWay Cove

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.

In the morning, the area would mostly be in shadow and somewhat against the sun, but then it’d be very quiet here.

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

All in all, the walk from the main parking area 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 likely due to erosion concerns).

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.

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_069_11172018 - Context of the McWay Falls lookout as seen from the Hwy 1
Context of the McWay Falls lookout as seen from the Hwy 1

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 parking lot.

Authorities

McWay 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_003_11172018 - On our visit to McWay Falls in November 2018, we managed to find parking along Hwy 1, which was outside the state park boundaries. But we had to really watch out for traffic since there wasn't a whole lot of room to walk
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_004_11172018 - Walking towards the turnoff leading into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along the Hwy 1 during our November 2018 visit
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_038_11172018 - Walking along the scenic trail after having gone underneath the tin tunnel and now skirting the cliffs above McWay Cove during our November 2018 visit
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_039_11172018 - During our visit to McWay Falls in November 2018, they closed the trail leading to the Waterfall House lookout so people crowded around the lookout for the waterfall and cove instead
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_042_11172018 - Looking towards McWay Falls and McWay Cove from as far as the trail would allow before we hit the closure barricade during our November 2018 visit
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_049_11172018 - Looking across the McWay Cove and McWay Falls from the end of the open part of the trail during our November 2018 visit, which was just as the sun was trying to break through the marine layer
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_062_11172018 - Walking back on the trail towards the kiosk and parking lot after having had our fill of the McWay Falls during our November 2018 visit
Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_087_11172018 - Elevated view of McWay Falls as seen from Hwy 1 late in the Dry Season, which took place in November 2018. Hard to believe that after all the years we've stopped by here, we had never checked it out from this vantage point
JP_Burns_SP_003_04022015 - The parking lot within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as seen during our April 2015 visit. This photo and the next several came on that day
JP_Burns_SP_047_04022015 - At the payment kiosk guarding the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as seen during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_049_04022015 - Julie and Tahia embarking on the short trail leading down to both the Pelton Wheel and McWay Falls during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_050_04022015 - Here's the signposted junction branching off towards the Pelton Wheel as seen during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_051_04022015 - Julie and Tahia on the well-established trail just past the Pelton Wheel junction as seen during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_052_04022015 - Looking down at the entrance to the building containing the Pelton Wheel just off the McWay Falls Trail on our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_061_04022015 - The cliff-hugging trail leading to better views of McWay Falls, the Waterfall Cove, and the Waterfall House ruins as seen during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_069_04022015 - Looking back at the precarious Waterfall Trail in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_068_04022015 - Wide open view of Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_066_04022015 - Zoomed in look at McWay Falls as seen on our April 2015 visit
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 in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_092_04022015 - This was the lookout from the terrace at the Waterfall House in April 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_097_04022015 - Context of the sea otter doing a backstroke in McWay Cove as seen during our McWay Falls visit in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_103_04022015 - Another look at the McWay Cove and McWay Falls during our visit in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_111_04022015 - This was the view of McWay Falls and Waterfall Cove as seen from the Waterfall House with less crashing waves during our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_112_04022015 - Focused look at the McWay Falls as seen from the Waterfall House in April 2015
JP_Burns_SP_114_04022015 - Julie and Tahia leaving the Waterfall House area as we headed back to the parking lot area to end our April 2015 visit
JP_Burns_SP_115_04022015 - Context of Julie and Tahia on the walkway with McWay Falls and McWay Cove to the right of them as we were concluding our visit in April 2015
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 parking lot in April 2015
McWay_Falls_008_03182010 - Looking down at the McWay Falls just minutes before sunset during our March 2010 visit. This photo and the next handful in this gallery came on that day
McWay_Falls_009_03182010 - Slightly more zoomed out and contextual look at the McWay Falls in March 2010
McWay_Falls_013_03182010 - Broad late afternoon look at McWay Falls and McWay Cove as seen during our sunset visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_014_03182010 - Another contextual look at the McWay Falls and McWay Cove as the sun was coming down towards the horizon during our visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_001_jx_03182010 - Julie took this contextual shot of me standing on the McWay Falls Trail as the late afternoon sun was about to set during our visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_015_03182010 - Here's another look at the beautiful Waterfall Cove and McWay Falls opening out to the Pacific Ocean in March 2010
McWay_Falls_033_03182010 - Looking out towards the setting sun on our McWay Falls visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_037_03182010 - Another focused look at McWay Falls as the sun was setting during our visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_039_03182010 - Looking back at the trail and the setting sun during our McWay Falls visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_040_03182010 - Contextual view of the walkway and the McWay Falls with Julie standing there checking out the secluded cove down below on our March 2010 visit
McWay_Falls_043_03182010 - Another broad look at the McWay Falls and McWay Cove seen at sunset during our visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_048_03182010 - We didn't recall seeing this arched treeway on our previous visits, but it's cool nonetheless. This was seen in March 2010, but I never recalled even seeing this again since
McWay_Falls_051_03182010 - Big Sur sunset at McWay Falls in March 2010.  Can it get any better than this?
McWay_Falls_053_03182010 - The sun pretty much setting and about to disappear behind the horizon on our visit in March 2010
McWay_Falls_009_07282002 - Zoomed in look at McWay Falls from our brief visit in July 2002
McWay_Falls_013_07282002 - How the McWay Falls looked back in July 2002
McWay_Falls_001_scanned_03312001 - How the McWay Falls looked on a quiet 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.

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).

Julia_Pfeiffer_Burns_SP_006_11172018 - The parking lot within the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The parking lot within the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

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.

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

So northbound drivers really need to be cognizant of the hazard here, especially regarding those who are getting back on the road from those pullouts as well as walkers crossing the highway!

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.

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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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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