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What to Know About McWay Falls in Big Sur BEFORE You Go

If you’re traveling to Big Sur, you must stop to see McWay Falls! It’s a beautiful and breathtaking view of a little waterfall splashing onto a small white sand beach in a cove with crystal clear turquoise water. It’s one of only two waterfalls that fall onto a beach in California and it’s a must-see!

How to Visit Big Sur’s Waterfall by the Ocean

Visiting Big Sur and thinking about stopping by McWay Falls? Keep reading and learn what to know about McWay Falls BEFORE you go! 

History of McWay Falls 

Named after Christopher McWay, a homesteader who owned the land in the early 1900s, the land was then purchased by Lathrop and Hélène Brown who built a redwood cabin across from the falls (where the viewing area is today). They replaced the cabin in 1940 with a modern, two-story home that they named Waterfall House. Hélène Brown gifted the land to the state of California with the requirement that the house be used as “museum for the custody and display of indigenous Indian relics, flora and fauna of the California coastal area, and historical objects pertaining to the Big Sur country”, or if not, be demolished. Thus, when the museum could not be finished, the Waterfall House was bulldozed in 1965. The viewing area has a sign with photos and just know that the terrace you’re standing on to view the waterfall used to be a bedroom with a view of the falls. 

You can see a few photos of the house here before it was demolished.

McWay Falls is actually a tidefall meaning it falls into the ocean at high tide and onto the beach at low tide.

But McWay Falls has not always splashed onto a beach, even at low tide. For years, the little waterfall always fell directly into the ocean, but thanks to the massive amount of rains in 1983 which caused mudslides north of the park, the ocean and waves later transported the debris and formed a sandy beach in McWay Cove. While McWay Falls is a tidefall during high tide, meaning it falls directly into the ocean, at low tide, the falls splash directly onto the beach. So, if you want to see the waterfall fall onto the beach, go at low tide. If you want to see the tidefall, go at high tide. 

Where is McWay Falls located?

McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California. 

How to get to McWay Falls?

McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California. 

There’s only one way to get to Big Sur and that’s via your own mode of transport on Highway One. If you’re approaching from the south, you’ll need to exit US Hwy 101 at San Luis Obispo and then follow CA Hwy 1 north on through Morro Bay. From the north, you can take US Hwy 101 south to CA Hwy 156 west at Prunedale. Then you’ll take CA Hwy 1 south.

The walk to get to the falls viewing area is a short 0.6 mile round trip along a trail. You can either park along PCH for free or pay the $10 Day Use Fee Permit and park in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot.

If you park in the parking lot, you’ll need to walk down a few stairs to get to the trail that leads to a tunnel that goes under Highway 1 and leads you to the falls viewing area. 

Do you have to pay for McWay Falls?

Technically no, you do not have to pay to see McWay Falls if you park along the Pacific Coast Highway. However, if you would like a safer parking spot, there is a Day Use Permit Fee of $10 (be sure to bring cash!) to park in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot.

But that Day Use Fee Permit can allegedly then be used at some of the other parks in the area, although I cannot find this specifically written on any official website, but a few old Trip Advisor recommendations from 6-9 years ago state that four of the state parks in the Big Sur area have a reciprocal agreement and your day use parking fee is good at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Andrew Molera State Park. Just be sure to keep your receipt and show it when parking at the other parks as long as it’s on the same day.

Another option is to check out a California State Library Parks Pass. With your California library card, you can check out a California State Library Parks Pass to borrow for an allotted number of days to use during your trip. The pass entitles you to a free vehicle day-use permit for one passenger vehicle. It can be used at over 200 state parks, but double-check the list to see which parks do not accept the park. 

How long is the walk to McWay Falls? 

The walk to get to the falls viewing area is a short 0.6 mile round trip along a trail. You can either park along PCH for free or pay the $10 Day Use Fee Permit and park in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot.

If you park in the parking lot, you’ll need to walk down a few stairs to get to the trail that leads to a tunnel that goes under Highway 1 and leads you to the falls viewing area. 

But definitely walk down to the viewing area AND check out the coast in the other direction! It’s so gorgeous, even without a waterfall!

Can you go down to McWay Falls? 

It is illegal to go down to McWay Falls. There is no beach access or ocean access at McWay Falls which includes the beach, Saddle Rock (the viewing area across from the falls) and McWay Falls.This is not only to protect the fragile landscape, but also because the areas are extremely hazardous. People who have failed to respect the boundaries have needed complex rescue operations which resulted in arrest and heavy fines or have even resulted in death! 

What to bring to McWay Falls? 

It’s California, so the usual rule is to dress in layers or at least have something in the car in case you want to run back for a sweatshirt or jacket. Also, be sure to always wear sunscreen and bring water. I also highly recommend a camera bigger than your phone since the viewing area is so far away from the waterfall in case you want to snap a good photo!

I have a Canon EOS 6D camera with multiple lenses, but my favorite travel camera is my Fuji x100s.

My husband also brought along a little sketchbook. If you like painting or watercolors, bring them along!

What else to do near McWay Falls?

There’s so much to do in Big Sur! Come for the gorgeous waterfall, but stay for the delicious food, sunsets on the beach, and a relaxing stay.

Read More: 12 INCREDIBLE THINGS TO DO IN BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA

Hike to Other Waterfalls

With so many waterfalls in Big Sur, make plans to hike to one or two of them such as Limekiln Falls, Pfeiffer Falls (trail currently closed), or Salmon Creek Falls.

Pfeiffer State Beach

Pfeiffer State Beach has an incredible feature at the north end of the beach…purple sand! Although, to be honest, I didn’t notice it when I was there and you can barely see it in the photos. But it is a rare feature!

Point Sur Lighthouse Tour

The Point Sur Lighthouse Tour is ideal for history buffs and those who find beauty in lighthouses. Atop a volcanic rock, it’s a pretty prominent landmark in the area plus the former naval facility is definitely worth a look too. For an even more incredible experience, join in on one of the moonlit tours if you’re able to do so!

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a spectacular place to do a bit of sightseeing for every kind of visitor. If you’re more of an adventurer, go for the SCUBA diving, but if you’re a bit more of a dreamer, take photos and paint the landscape, or simply just revel in the surrounding beauty. On top of that, there are archeological sites and all sorts of fascinating plants and animals to see.

Where to Stay in Big Sur, California

There are several places to stay in Big Sur, but be sure to have reservations in advance!

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn was here before Highway One was even completed. Started in the 1930s by Helmuth and Helen Deetjen, Deetjen’s welcomed weary travelers, and now it serves as a historic and luxurious place to stay. The rooms are lovely, there’s romantic dining, and magnificent gardens offer beauty while the Castro Canyon waterfall brings that wow factor. You’ll feel right at home!

Read MoreDEETJEN’S BIG SUR INN REVIEW

Ventana Big Sur

Ventana Big Sur is for adults only and you’ll love disconnecting from the world and reconnecting with each other here. There are 59 secluded suites that offer balconies to overlook the breathtaking view of the rugged Pacific coast. It’s a perfect retreat for finding yourself or simply getting away from it all to let that romance go wild with options for both resort stays and glamping.

Big Sur Lodge

Big Sur Lodge is surrounded by the redwood forestland of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and is a haven for all that seek peace among the trees. This beautiful lodge offers 62 cottage-style guest rooms far from today’s chaotic world. Walk the paths in the morning to explore the scenery, swim in the refreshing Big Sur River, and soak up all the paradise of being in nature.

Treebones Resort

If you’re looking for the best glamping experience in Big Sur, you’ll find it at Treebones Resort. With hiking, exploring, dining, and relaxing, you’ll be fully covered for all your adventures. For those with older kids and those that want to avoid screaming toddlers, you’ll be glad to know that children must be at least 13 years old to stay here.

Where to Eat in Big Sur, California

Deetjen’s

Even if you’re not staying at Deetjen’s Inn , you’ll want to stop at this historic restaurant on the property. It was an addition from Barbara Blake, a traveler and widowed Englishwoman who fell in love with the area and had knowledge of how to run country inns plus the funds to make it work. That’s why you’ll find the charming traditional English-style restaurant that still maintains the ambiance it had more than 70 years ago. It offers breakfast and dinner every day except Wednesdays and Thursdays with hearty cuisine that is sure to satisfy your appetite. If you can only make it for one meal, stop in for breakfast as it has the best buttermilk pancakes, eggs benedict, and breakfast burritos around!

Roadhouse

Get a taste of California with this fresh and local food stop at Roadhouse. The menu is seasonal so things change often, but all of them are delicious. It’s an ideal place for grabbing a snack, meal, coffee, or lingering for a glass of wine.

Big Sur Bakery

The Big Sur Bakery is a prime pit stop from 8:30 am to 3 pm Wednesdays through Sundays. Those are the times you can grab something from the bakery or sit down for breakfast or lunch. You’ll find omelets, breakfast sandwiches, salads, lunch sandwiches, and more. Dinner is available Thursdays through Saturdays from 5 pm to 8:30 pm with things like oysters and green garlic soup to try. Because this place sources the freshest local finds, it is always changing with the harvest so every time you stop here, you could find something new and exciting. If you’re passing by quickly, pop into the bakery for a treat to enjoy while on the road.

Nepenthe

Don’t just stop at Nepenthe to see the view. Sit down for a meal and you’ll really be in for a treat. It is famed for the Ambrosiaburger which is a ground steak sandwich with its own Ambrosia sauce. Save room for dessert as the pies and cakes are made fresh daily in the bakery on-site. You’ve got deep-dish apple pie, a four-layer chocolate cake, and triple berry pie for those that desire sweetness, and there’s also an artisanal cheese plate that is perfect for anyone stopping in for a little wine.

Tips for Visiting McWay Falls in Big Sur, California 

Cell Reception is Limited

There is limited to no cell reception in Big Sur. So be sure to download any maps, directions, reservations, etc. before you head to Big Sur.

Crowds

Big Sur and its natural attractions can get very crowded. The parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park only has so many spaces and fills up quickly. Plan ahead and visit during the early morning or late afternoon. Or visit during the midweek! 

Check the Tide Schedule

Like I mentioned before, McWay Falls is a tidefall meaning it falls into the ocean at high tide, so check the tide schedule and if you want to see the waterfall fall onto the beach, go at low tide. If you want to see the tidefall, go at high tide.

Fire & Mudslide Closures 

Roads and trails may be closed for restoration due to recent fires or mudslides so be sure you check the route and trails before riding off to Big Sur.

Inaccessible Trail

There are stairs at the beginning of the trail, so it is not an accessible trail hike to the falls viewing area. 

Double Check Your Expectations

Looking at some of the reviews of McWay Falls on Tripadvisor it seems as if several people were expecting a lot more. There are many reviews that mention that the view wasn’t worth the $10. Many remarked on how small the waterfall is or how far away it is from the viewing area. So, I just want to remind everyone to double-check their expectations before going. Yes, the waterfall is small, yes it is far from the viewing area, but it’s still gorgeous. 

It’s a fairly short stop! If you’re quick, it only takes about 30 minutes to park your car and walk the short trail to the viewing area, but you can of course take your time and take longer. 

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Land Acknowledgement

Golden State Getaways wants to acknowledge that we live, operate, gather, and benefit everyday on the traditional stolen lands of several Indigenous peoples and nations including the Tongva (Gabrieleno), Kizh (Gabrieleno), Chumash, Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun), Ohlone, Awaswas, and Fernandeño Tataviam peoples who have stewarded the lands and waterways throughout their many generations in what is now the state of California. 

I wanted to personally acknowledge these Indigenous people and nations and both their commitment and current contributions to the land with a donation to the American Indian College Fund because acknowledgment without action does not begin to address the systemic issues facing Indigenous people. If you feel as though you benefit from the land you’re living on or traveling to and you have the means, I kindly ask that you donate at least $1 to a Native-led organization such as the Native American Rights Fund or the American Indian College Fund

McWay Falls is located in Big Sur which is located on Esselen land. You can learn more about the Indigenous land you’re living on or traveling to by visiting the Native Lands website.