McWay Falls in Big Sur is an 80-foot cascade that makes the perfect picture postcard. In a state known for its numerous beautiful waterfalls, McWay Falls holds its own as a must-see year-round ribbon of water along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
A part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, McWay Falls is one of only two named waterfalls in California that are also tidefalls. Depending on the tide, McWay Falls either falls directly into the Pacific Ocean, or onto a pristine little cove. Either way, it is a beautiful sight, and one of the most photographed landmarks in California.
Considering a visit to McWay Falls, Big Sur? Read on to discover what to expect, plus things to know before you go!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Can You Expect at McWay Falls?
Essential Facts About McWay Falls, California
How to Get to McWay Falls in Big Sur, CA
Tips for Visiting McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
What to Bring on Your Visit to McWay Falls
What Can You Expect at McWay Falls?
One of the best views in California!
Created by McWay Creek, McWay Falls flows year round, unlike many other famous waterfalls in California. The setting of the thin silver ribbon of water, amidst the cliffs and greenery of Big Sur, with the turquoise waters of the cove below, and the blue of the ocean beyond, is simply magical.
Until 1983, McWay Falls used to flow straight into the Pacific Ocean. But after a season of record rain, mud flows and landslides occurred, including a major mudslide just north of the waterfall. California Highway 1 was damaged, and repairs in the region resulted in lots of landslide debris being deposited in the ocean.
The ocean then created the beach you see today, by washing up some of the debris to the area just below McWay Falls and pounding it into sand. Today the pristine white cove is an integral part of the perfection of McWay Falls at low tide. When the tide is in, though, McWay Falls still tumbles headlong into the Pacific Ocean.
Hiking the Overlook Trail to McWay Falls
While you can view McWay Falls from the side of California Highway 1, walking the short McWay Falls Overlook Trail will allow you to have an unobstructed view. The McWay Falls Trail is one of the easiest hikes in Big Sur.
McWay Falls Overlook occupies the site of the terrace of the erstwhile Waterfall House, owned by Lathrop and Hélène Brown. In 1961, Hélène Brown donated the property to the State of California, stipulating that Waterfall House be made into a museum or demolished. The museum could not be set up, leading to the home being demolished.
The trail to McWay Falls is short (0.5 mile round trip) and paved for the greater part. There are a few steps from the parking area to the trail, but it is otherwise flat. Enjoy wildflowers in the spring, butterflies, and birds.
In the winter and spring, you can look for migrating gray whales as well. Especially in December and January, the migrating whales pass close to shore. Sea otters and harbor seals can sometimes be seen in the cove.
California condors reportedly roost in the eucalyptus trees by McWay Falls. We’ve not seen one on our visits so far, but don’t forget to scan the tree tops and the skies when you visit: you just may be lucky and spot one of the massive birds! The wingspan of the California condor is supposed to be close to 10 feet, so it is indeed a magnificent sight.
Once you go down the steps, you will walk parallel to McWay Canyon, and you can see (and hear) McWay Creek in the canyon below, gurgling its way to the cliffs and the ocean.
You will then traverse the tunnel under California Highway 1 to get to the western side of the road. Once you emerge from the tunnel, continue walking along the trail as it veers right along the bluffs, and you will soon come to the overlook, where you can gaze your fill at pretty McWay Falls and snap lots of photos.
At the time of writing, the trail is open only up to a point (the first overlook), on account of erosion. But you do get a fabulous view of the falls from the overlook that is open.
Photographing McWay Falls
McWay Falls photographs much better in the afternoons, with the sunlight falling on the waterfall and the cliffs behind. Golden hour and sunset are great because the waterfall is in the light and the cliffs turn to gold.
Although you can see McWay Falls from the side of California Highway 1, vegetation blocks your view. For the best photos, walk the trail to the overlook!
Water colors are the best on a clear bright day. On such days, you can clearly tell the difference between the turquoise waters of the cove and the blue waters of the open ocean.
While light wisps of fog can augment the setting, you will want to aim for a day and time when the marine layer is not obscuring the views too much. The waterfall looks like a thin ribbon from the overlook, so clarity is crucial.
Essential Facts about McWay Falls, California
McWay Falls is located along California Highway 1, within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Although it flows year round, the flow is most robust in the winter and early spring.
You can view McWay Falls from the west side of California Highway 1, at a pullout just north of the park. Parking is very limited, though, and there is a lot of vegetation that may obstruct the view. Plus California Highway 1 is a narrow road, often with traffic congestion at popular viewpoints, including McWay Falls.
The best view of McWay Falls is from the overlook inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can park on the shoulder of the highway and walk to the trail, or you can park in a designated parking spot inside the park. Our recommendation is to park inside.
The general parking and day use fee for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, at the time of writing, is $10.00. The California State Parks Golden Bear pass, or day receipt from another California state park, is valid at the park. So once you pay the fee at any of the Big Sur state parks, you can visit the rest on the same day without paying additional parking fees.
Spoiler Alert: There is No Legal Access to the Beach at McWay Falls!
Note that there is no legal access to the beach at McWay Falls, Saddle Rock, and McWay Falls. The landscape around the falls is fragile, and the restriction is in place to preserve the integrity and unspoiled beauty of the landmark, and to protect visitors from injury.
There is a hefty fine if you are caught trying to access the cove. Plus, there have been reports of visitors getting seriously injured (or worse) while trying to go down to the beach. Please heed park rules and guidelines to enjoy a safe visit to McWay Falls and to preserve the sight for future visitors.
At the time of writing, the McWay Falls Overlook Trail is only open up to the first overlook. During our most recent visit, we saw a visitor squeeze past the barrier and continue on the cordoned off portion of the trail. Please do not be that visitor.
McWay Falls Overlook Trail can be walked year-round. There are restrooms by the entrance to the park. Dogs are not allowed on the McWay Falls Overlook Trail. The Big Sur Coast is a no-drone zone. There are a few steps at the start of the trail, so it is not accessible.
Big Sur state parks are generally open between 8 a.m. and sunset, but check the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park website for current information on fees, special closures, and hours of operation before you visit.
How to Get to McWay Falls in Big Sur, CA
Getting to McWay Falls is straightforward. It is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, along California Highway 1 in Big Sur. McWay Falls is a must-stop spot on a Big Sur road trip!
Coming from Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north, drive California Highway 1 for 36.4 miles to arrive at the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Coming from San Simeon in the south, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a drive of 52 miles along Highway 1. Look for the sign marking the McWay Canyon entrance to the park.
The trailhead for the McWay Falls Overlook Trail is located just inside the entrance to the park, and you will see signs for the trail near the box where you self-register and pay the parking fee.
While you can park outside along the side of California Highway 1 and walk to the start of the trail, it may be safer and easier to pay the fee and park in one of the parking areas. California Highway 1 is narrow and one lane in each direction, and finding parking along the shoulder at popular attractions can be difficult at busy times.
Tips for Your McWay Falls Visit
Arrive in the afternoon for good light
McWay Falls lies in shadow until the afternoon. Since it’s a thin sliver of water, it is best viewed in the afternoon, when sunlight falls on the cliffs.
Download or print maps and brochures prior to your visit
Do not expect cell phone reception in Big Sur. While there is good signage, both for the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and to the Overlook Trail within the park, make sure to download or print any maps or directions prior to heading out to Big Sur.
Be aware of park safety guidelines
Big Sur is a wilderness area, with poison oak, ticks, and wildlife. Be aware of park safety guidelines and recommendations and follow them.
Check tide schedules for the day of your visit
McWay Falls either plunges straight into the waves or on to the beach, depending on whether you visit at high tide or low. If you are especially interested in one or the other, check tide schedules prior to your visit so you can time your arrival accordingly.
Visit late in the afternoon for a less crowded experience
During the day, the popular sights along the Big Sur drive can be crowded, especially if you visit on a good weather day. Parking lots can get full, entailing a wait. Arrive later in the afternoon for a quieter experience.
Plus, sunset at McWay Falls can be spectacular!
Or visit during the week
Big Sur is one of the most popular California weekend getaways. If you are looking for more solitude along the trail and at the overlook, plan your visit for a weekday.
Allow enough time
McWay Falls Overlook Trail is short. But the scenery is so beautiful that you will want to linger, guaranteed! Allow for enough time to enjoy the view, look for birds and wildlife, and take lots of photos and video.
Bring cash for the day use fee
If there is a staffed entrance kiosk at a Big Sur state park, they generally accept credit cards. But at our most recent visit to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, we had to self register.
There was a little envelope in which to place our fee, and a slot to drop it for collection. To be safe, bring the exact amount of cash for the entrance fee if you plan to park inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Dress in layers
The Big Sur Coast can be cool and breezy, especially right by the ocean, and McWay Falls is no exception. Dress in layers to stay comfortable as you explore.
What to Bring on Your Visit to McWay Falls, Big Sur
McWay Falls Overlook Trail is a short walk, but carrying a supply of drinking water when on a hike is always a good idea.
The McWay Falls Overlook Trail and Overlook are exposed for the most part, so use sunscreen. Also wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed sun hat. We like this natural waterproof sunscreen!
Bring your smartphone or a camera for photos and videos of the beautiful waterfall.
Looking for a small camera that takes great landscape photos? Consider the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III. It shoots excellent high-resolution photos, and great video as well. Get it on Amazon!
If you enjoy birding, or want to look for marine life, bring your binoculars. If you spot a California condor or a gray whale, you will want to get a closer look!
We use the Celestron Trailseeker compact waterproof binoculars. They work great even in low light situations.
Planning to explore more of the California Central Coast? Check out some of our other travel and trail guides!
- Walking the Bluff Trail at Montana de Oro State Park
- The Best Things to Do in Garrapata State Park in Big Sur, CA!
- Things to Do in Cambria, CA
- Moonstone Beach Boardwalk in Cambria
- Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
- A Weekend in Santa Barbara
- Explore Point Lobos State Park
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