McWay Falls is “that” waterfall in Big Sur that everyone has seen and many have photographed. I had driven up and down Big Sur several times before I finally made a point of going here. It was on my “must-see” list for years, but I just hadn’t timed my drive right… until this year.
Time: 10 min.
Elevation gain: 50 ft
When to go: Year-round
The best place to get to McWay Falls is from Falls Trail just past the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You’ll pay a day use fee to park here, but the Falls Trail goes under Pacific Coast Highway via a tunnel, making it a safer option than jockeying for a parking spot along busy Highway 1.
Once you pass through the tunnel, you wind your way along the top of the bluff to the right. You’ll see great views of McWay Falls, where the water from McWay Creek spills 80 feet down, directly onto the beach.
Interestingly, that beach didn’t always exist.
In 1983, a huge landslide just north of the cove dumped massive amounts of dirt and silt into the ocean. Pacific Coast Highway was closed for nearly a year as crews worked to clear the slide and stabilize the hills. The cove, which used to be filled entirely with sea water, was filled with sand and sediment that washed up as a result of the landslide.
The overlook itself is the terrace from what used to be the Waterfall House — a vacation residence of Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown. The ranch was donated to the state on the condition that it be preserved for a state park — dedicated to Julia Pfeiffer Burns — one of the pioneer women of Big Sur.
Standing there on the terrace, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic bedroom view.
McWay Falls Trail Map
McWay Falls Tips
- Visit later in the afternoon for best the best light
- Don’t ignore the signs warning you to NOT climb down the cliff to the beach. It accelerates erosion and could lead to further access restrictions. Lead by your example.
- Many people park on the side of Highway 1, but avoid the risk by parking on the east side in the state park’s parking lot. You’ll have to pay a few bucks, but you have a scenic tunnel that takes you safely and directly to the fall overlook.
- In December and January, the overlook is a good place to watch for gray whales migrating southward to the calving grounds off the Baja California coast. You can see them return northward in March and April.
- There are bathrooms available inside the state park on the east side of PCH.
More Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Resources
- Take time to hike the Ewoldsen Trail on the “other” side of PCH.
- Official Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Brochure (PDF)
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (official website)
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Weather Forecast