The iconic McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur is one of the most photographed attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California.
This 80-foot tall waterfall flows year-round. When the tide is high, the falls plunge directly into the Pacific Ocean. Hence they are a type of coastal waterfall or tidefall. The waterfall is extremely beautiful and has inspired artists, poets, and writers for generations.
McWay Creek begins in the Santa Lucia mountains of Big Sur and tumbles down the hills to form McWay Falls as it cascades down to the Pacific Coast. At the base of the falls is a small sandy cove known as McWay Cove which can completely disappear at high tide.
The waterfall has existed for over 100 years when the pioneer families of McWays, Pfeiffer, and Partington first settled the area. Initially, the waterfall fell directly into the ocean. However, after years of erosion and debris from the construction of Pacific Coast Highway 1, a sandy beach formed beneath the falls.
Though the beach at the base of the falls looks like the perfect place to lounge by the water, it is extremely dangerous and inaccessible to visitors. The only way to see McWay Falls is from the Waterfall Observation Overlook inside the park.
The lack of people in the cove actually works in the falls favor, creating a perfect canvas for landscape photography. The falls have an untouched, mystical quality and it is easy to see why there are one of the Best things to do in Big Sur.
The McWay Falls Trail and Overlook get quite crowded and is regularly filled with photographers from the moment the park opens to closing time. Despite the crowds, the falls make for a spectacular view and are an essential stop on a Pacific Coast Highway Road trip.
Where are the McWay Falls located?
McWay Falls is located in the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park along Highway 1. The park is just about an hour south of Monterey and 12 miles south of Big Sur Ranger Station. The park is located at Mile Marker 35.8 on California Highway 1.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most visited state parks in Big Sur. It is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, an early pioneer woman that played an instrumental role in Big Sur region.
The park is relatively small compared to the large area of Big Sur but has many popular attractions. It only offers a handful of trails yet is one of the most well-recognized parks in the area, thanks largely to the McWay Falls.
Other attractions include historical structures belonging to the McWay and Pfieffer Burns families, 300-foot tall redwood forests, and the Partington Cove. You can also spot excellent wildlife in the park including sea otters, California condors, bald eagles, and a blue butterfly colony. The park has a couple of campsites, however, they fill up very soon.
Divers tend to favor this park because of its notoriously challenging waters. The tides can change quickly and powerfully making it difficult to manage for newer divers, but those who make it to the bottom are rewarded with multi-story tall kelp forests and an underwater cave. Permits can be obtained at Big Sur Ranger Station.
Best time to visit McWay Falls
The park and the waterfall are beautiful year-round, though the crowds tend to be thinner in the winter – though they are not gone by any means. Picking the right time of the day to come has more to do with how you want to see the falls.
The mornings offer a foggy, ethereal picture whereas sunsets can be vibrant and full of golden light. The fog look beautiful even at noon when the sun shines high, though the trail can get crowded at this time.
It is also important to take into account the tides. Low tide means that the falls are landing on the sand where higher tides can create the effect of a tidal fall.
How to Visit McWay Falls
Timing & Fees
The day-use fee for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is only $10 per car. While it is possible to spend an entire day in the park and a few campsites are available, we recommend a short PCH pitstop just to see McWay Falls.
Plan for the hike to and from the Waterfall Observation Overlook to take about an hour. That should give the average hiker about 20 minutes to look at the falls and to explore the foundations of the old cottage that sat on the cliffside.
Current status of the falls
The falls and the park are currently closed to visitors due to the wildfires.
Apart from the fires, the falls might be closed at any time of the year due to erosion. The swiftly moving water has caused soil erosion at the top of the falls, making the ground unstable and very dangerous. The erosion is actually part of what created the sandy beach below the falls. When the McWays first settled in the area, the falls plunged directly into the ocean.
The second reason the falls trail is often closed has to do with mudslides. Heavy rains cause mudslides in Big Sur and can completely destroy trails and cliffs.
Big Sur is known for its Mediterranean climate, which means there isn’t much difference between winter and summer. The temperature difference is only about 10-15 degrees with summers ranging from 60 to 85 degrees and winters coming in between 45 and 70.
While the seasons don’t offer much variability, the day temperatures vary quite a bit. Mornings can be very chilly and are often thick with fog. Once the sun gets high, the day can get quite hot and only moderately humid before cooling back off again and getting breezy in the evenings.
When traveling in this area either to Big Sur or to McWay Falls, layers are the best bet.
Where to park
There are multiple parking options within the park and along Highway 1, though the easiest to find is on the east side of the highway. This is the main parking area and where most of the trails begin.
The other parking options are close to the campsite to the south and at a wide pull off to the north which connects to the Partington Cove Trail and doesn’t require the $10 day-use fee.
Camping & Lodging
There is a campsite within the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park. The site is on the south side of the park and is almost always at capacity. To assure a spot, make a reservation at least six to eight months in advance, even during the offseason.
The $30 fee covers the camping site – which can only have four people – and two parking spots as well as the use of the park during the duration of the stay. There are campgrounds available to the north and south of the park along Highway 1.
There are almost 15 hotels within a 20-mile radius. The closest is the Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, just five miles down the road which offers rustic-style rooms and a restaurant within a wisteria-draped historic farmhouse.
There are no facilities available on the hike to and from the McWay Falls overlook, but bathrooms are available at the parking lot and at the campsites. Each of the campsites comes with a fire pit, picnic table, and running water.
McWay Falls Hike
The hike to the overlook is an easy, leisurely stroll through nature. It is good for all skill levels and popular with families.
The path is about a half-mile long and only gains 500 feet of elevation, though that’s all the height that is needed to get a birds-eye view of the falls.
The path begins at the parking area on the west side of Highway 1 before taking visitors through a short tunnel to the main park area.
This is where the path splinters off into different directions so be sure to look for the sign pointing to the overlook.
Continuing on the path, visitors travel beneath 300-foot redwoods before making it to a series of vantage points leading up to the main viewing area.
All of these vantage points usually have a photographer or two trying to get the perfect shot so we recommend waiting for your turn at the observation platform.
Remember, no one is allowed near the top of the falls or on the sandy beach below and any rule breaks are subject to arrest.
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