McWay Waterfall Trail

Introduction

Even short trails can be worthwhile excursions, and the path to McWay Falls is one of the prime
examples of must-do trips along Highway 1. The trail is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
and provides both southern and northern coastal views, making it a unique and exciting trail to
explore.

The majestic 80-foot McWay Waterfall, which cascades onto a pristine beach below, is arguably
the single most popular image of Big Sur. It is also one of only eight waterfalls in the United
States that flow directly into the ocean.

Be sure to check out these beginner hiking tips before enjoying this amazing trail.

Hiking Facts:

• Length: .64 mile
• Type: Out & Back
• Difficulty: Easy
• Path: Flat, wide
• Elev. Gain: 50 feet
• Parking Fee: Yes
• Restrooms: Yes

McWay Falls hiking

McWay Falls Hike Trail Map

McWay Falls Hiking Trail Map

Use this map to help guide you on the trail to McWay Waterfall. There are alternative routes to
the main route, including a narrow path that leads to the area above the falls instead of the
opposite cliffside. While the view from here is not as spectacular, it is still a worthwhile excursion
if you have the time.

McWay Falls Hike

Park your car and head in a western direction, back towards Highway 1. Keep an eye out for the
“Waterfall Trail” sign to guide you, although finding the trail should be relatively straightforward.
If you parked in the overflow lot towards the south, walk back north in the direction of the lot
entrance, and the sign will be on your left.

You’ll soon reach a flight of wooden stairs taking you down to a wide path that leads through a
tunnel under the highway. This part of the hike is easy to manage and short, so it will take only a
few minutes until you can see the ocean. Turn right and follow the trail, which will now be mostly
downhill until the falls appear to your left.

There are several vantage points along the path, typically with a photographer snapping
panoramic shots at each one. If you’re visiting on the weekend during summer, these lookouts
can become crowded, so make sure to be patient and factor in some additional time.

Until 1983, McWay Falls poured directly into the ocean since the beach as it is today did not
exist. This narrow sandy stretch only came into existence due to a landslide and highway
construction which caused the bay to be expanded. Historic photos of this former layout can still
be viewed today and come as a stark contrast to the picturesque cove that is so well-loved by
visitors to Big Sur.

Keep walking for another 100 feet or so until you reach the end of the path, which is marked by
another vantage point. Here, you’ll see a wonderful view of the northern coast, and behind you
up the hill, the ruins of the old “Waterfall House” built by Lathrop and Helen Brown. The
gorgeous house was intended to be preserved as a museum but was instead torn down by the
state in 1965 after a fruitless struggle to save it. If you know where to look, you can still see
where the old tramway ran down from the highway to the house.

Considered a close pal of President Roosevelt, Lathrop Brown was not only a Congressman
from New York but also a generally influential person in the region in the 1930s. He also
constructed the iconic “Tin House” further north, which is an interesting place to visit during your time in Big Sur. There is a nice bench under the trees here and plenty of photo
opportunities.

According to Monterey County Place Names, “The point below the old ‘Waterfall House’ site has
a paralyzing-sheer 80-foot drop to the ocean. A surveyor hired by Lathrop Brown called it
‘Poison Point’ because ‘one drop and you’re dead!'” This interesting anecdote, unfortunately,
has some truth to it, so make sure to be careful when exploring the steep cliffs. Wearing sturdy
shoes and staying away from the edge is highly recommended.

The McWay Falls, as well as the nearby creek, are named after Christopher McWay, a farmer
who settled in the area around 1874 with his son Christopher Junior. The surrounding park
receives its name from Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a famous pioneer and local resident who, together
with her husband John B. Burns, ran a successful ranch in McWay Canyon.

This area is known for its rich history, and Big Sur has several museums collecting historic
artifacts and stories, including those of Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Christopher McWay.

In recent years, the Park Rangers have been cleaning out invasive non-native plants around the
waterfall house area and the McWay Waterfall trail, including mostly eucalyptus trees. The
ornamental plantings from several decades ago are largely left intact whenever possible.

The result is better views for visitors, along with a somewhat more native setting. Invasive plant
species pose a significant threat to local ecosystems in Big Sur, and the area around McWay
Falls is no exception.

Reader Dennis Hanshew sent in his recollection about the Waterfall House:

My late father (Marion E. Hanshew) was a ranger at Big Sur State Park from 1960 to 1965.
When the property that was to become Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was given to the
State, we got to know the couple who were the then caretakers. I no longer remember
their names. They lived in the house on Highway 1, near which the rails transported one
down the steep hillside to the flagstone terrace and the main house. We were invited to
tour the property and the house. I am guessing it would have been 1963, but it may have
been a year earlier or later. I was a teenager in high school at the time. I distinctly
remember the black stone entry foyer with inlaid gold octopus, its tentacles splayed out
over the floor, and the enormous stairs descending into the main room below.

There were kitchens and service areas to the right that we did not tour. The main room
had simply huge plate glass windows overlooking the Pacific. We were told that they had
to be covered over in bad weather to prevent shattering.

The one impression that I will never forget is of Mrs. Brown’s bedroom, the only room in
the house that overlooked the waterfall. It was rather small and entirely painted black
inside. It seems to me that there were gold stars on the ceiling. There was one large
window that was covered with black Venetian blinds. We were told that they were always
kept closed. There was only a bed in the room and a nightstand with a plastic radio on it,
and a lamp. The bed was an antique, I believe from somewhere in Asia, and rather small.
Mrs. Brown was supposedly rather tall, so it must have been odd. The bathroom
adjoining the bedroom was tiled in blue-black and gold tiles and had inset beveled
mirrors that reflected your image endlessly in all directions.

The other thing that stuck with me all these years is that the caretakers had a son. I
believe he had been a teenager. He had disappeared before we met the couple.
Apparently, he had gone to the cove to fish off of the rocks, a favorite pastime. His body
was never found, and it was speculated that he may have been taken by a killer whale as
they frequent the coastline at certain times of the year.

Alternate Hiking in Big Sur close to McWay Falls

On your way back towards the tunnel under Highway 1 from the overlook, you can keep going
along the coastal path heading south. This narrow path leads away from the main trail and,
instead of taking hikers to the opposite end of McWay Falls, leads to the area right above them.
While the view is not comparable, this is still a worthwhile walk and makes for a more quiet
excursion with fewer others to share the trail with.

Another option for a quick and manageable hike close to McWay Falls is the walk to the Pelton
Wheel. Towards the right, you can spot the trail as you retrace your steps through the tunnel
close to the parking lot.

While this is by no means the most exciting hike in the area, it is a fun and short walk if you
have the time. The wheel was once used to generate power for both local homes as well as a
railway that connected the house to the mountains. Some of the remains of the tracks can still
be spotted if you look closely.

If you are in the area and going on a hike to McWay Falls anyway, you might want to take some
time to explore this landmark and its trail to make the most of your day in Big Sur.

Getting To the McWay Falls Trail

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which spans across 3,762 acres, is well marked and easy to
spot off Highway 1. The entrance is located about 37 miles south of Carmel or 12 miles south of
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Note that the two parks have similar names but are 12 miles apart.
Take care when looking up directions so that you do not confuse the two. From the south, the
entrance is about 48 miles north of Ragged Point, which is 20 miles north of San Simeon.

If you park in the official parking area, signs will lead you west through a tunnel under the
highway out to the trail. Visitors can also park for free outside the park along the west side of
Highway 1. If you do park here, you’ll want to head south along the highway to a gate in the
fence and take the trail to the right. Keep heading north, and you’ll soon meet up with the
regular trail at the tunnel.

McWay Waterfall Trail Difficulty

The trail to McWay Waterfall can be considered more of a walk than a real hike. It’s easy to
manage for all experience levels, and the path is wide and level. It shouldn’t take much longer
than 30 minutes, however, you might want to factor in some time to sit and enjoy the view of the
falls. Also, consider that this trail is known to be very popular, and a lot of tourists driving
Highway 1 will stop here for a brief time. Avoid visiting on a weekend or public holiday if
possible.

McWay Waterfall Hike Duration

You can complete the hike to McWay Falls in under 30 minutes if you’re in a rush. However, this
leaves little time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and take photos along the way. An hour or
even 45 minutes is a more realistic timeframe for this trail. Consider that you’ll most likely be
sharing the path with a good number of other visitors, and some of the lookout points may be
crowded. If you’re on a road trip and are just looking for a brief stop to see the falls before
returning to your car, it’s best to visit in the early morning.

What to bring on a hike to McWay Waterfall

Since this is a very short hike, you won’t have to worry about bringing an excessive amount of
water with you. A small bottle will suffice, although you might want to leave an extra one in your
car on a hot day.

Even though most of the path to McWay Falls is broad and relatively flat, wearing sturdy shoes
is still recommended, especially if you’re planning on attempting to hike the additional trail to the
top of the waterfall. Since there are many steep drops and sharp rocks in this area, it’s easy to
trip and injure yourself. Always put your own safety first.

If you’re interested in bird watching, make sure to pack a pair of binoculars when going on a
hike along the McWay Falls trail. This area is known for its diversity, and many rare bird species
are native to the area.

Make sure to apply plenty of sunscreen as there is little shade on parts of the trail. It can get
extremely hot here during summer, so the preferred time to visit lies closer to September and
October. During these months, the weather will be pleasantly warm with little chance of rain but
not as scorching as July and August may be.

Remember that dogs are not permitted on this trail. Do not leave your pets in the car, even on a
cool day. Unfortunately, it’s the better choice not to bring them to the park at all.

Links To More Information

Where this trail lies along the Big Sur coast
Historical information on the area
Description of a Pelton wheel
California State Parks info page
Aerial view of the area

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