How to visit McWay Falls in the scenic Big Sur area? The simplest answer: “Easy.” Read on for a detailed description of the location and a waterfall trail. Throughout this blog post, you’ll also find plenty of tips and my recent photos to (if you still need it) further inspire you to visit McWay Falls, the second most popular landmark in Big Sur, California.
A Complete Guide to Visiting McWay Falls in Big Sur, California: McWay Falls Overlook Trail
“How hard would it be to visit McWay Falls? The covered waterfall nestles along the shore in Big Sur. If you drive slowly enough, you can spot the massive drop from the road. Once on the site, you’ll figure out how to get closer to a waterfall overlook.”
I’m sure many first-time visitors of McWay Falls recognize themselves in my thinking. A few years ago, this was exactly how I was planning to visit the second favorite attraction in Big Sur. “If you can stumble upon the Bixby Creek Bridge just by driving along Highway 1, finding McWay Falls should be somewhat similar.”
Those who visited the area and walked down the McWay Falls Overlook Trail know that this is far from being true. Indeed, if you read all road signs carefully, you don’t need any further instructions. For those who need some guidance or at least a vague idea how to find the secluded waterfall, continue reading this short guide to visiting McWay Falls in the picturesque Big Sur area.
How to Visit McWay Falls: Location
The elusive waterfall is a sight that draws masses to explore the most popular route in California. Starting near Monterey, Northern California, and running almost all the way to San Simeon, Central California, the 90-mile scenic drive encompasses ragged shorelines, secluded coves, dramatic beaches, sweeping hills, forests with centuries-old trees, and a number of astounding waterfalls.
McWay Falls is arguably one of the most beautiful natural attractions to visit in the Big Sur area. Protected by a giant cliff, the waterfall sits in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, roughly 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. In the south, the area neighborsLimekiln State Park.
Apart from the McWay Falls Trail and the sought-after viewpoint overlooking the popular drop, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers exceptional opportunities for wildlife watching, picnicking, and hiking.
The 1-mile Partington Cove Trail is one of the areas you must visit if time is not an issue. Otherwise, devote 30-60 minutes to the pleasant-to-the-eye hike toward the McWay Falls Overlook.
During our trip to Big Sur a few weeks ago, the original trail was slightly modified due to hazardous conditions. Those who are eager to jump on the hiking path right away, skip to the Visit McWay Falls: Hike section now.
How to Visit McWay Falls: Direction
I invested more time in planning our recent California road trip. No more guessing and hoping for the best while looking for the classic waterfall. This strategy certainly didn’t do any good for us the first time.
Before this visit to McWay Falls, I jotted down exact distances with proper directions, including time it would take us to get to the site from the closest towns and cities.
- With that said, McWay Falls sits about 52 miles from San Simeon. The village nestles at the head of the Big Sur area and is your best guide if you drive from the south.
- If you visit McWay Falls, heading from the northern part of the state, set aside at least 3 hours to reach the prominent waterfall from San Francisco. It’s only a 1-hour drive to get to the landmark from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Another gateway to Big Sur sits approximately 39 miles north of McWay Falls.
TIP: Download an offline map before entering the Big Sur area. With this help on your side, your chances of visiting McWay Falls increase tenfold.
A well-marked sign nestles along the scenic drive, directing you to turn to the left if you drive south. Heading away from the coastline might seem confusing at first. Fear not, you’re on the right track. Proceed to a self-paid kiosk at the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The state park fee is $10. No annual national park passes are accepted.
From here follow a paved road across a bridge to a small parking lot. Park, grab a camera and water and set off on the hiking adventure to McWay Falls.
How to Visit McWay Falls: Hike the McWay Falls Overlook Trail
- Distance: 0.5-mile, round-trip trail
- Elevation Gain: Practically flat
- Difficultly: Easy
- Time: 20-30 minutes
From the parking area, walk back across the bridge. The McWay Falls Trail is located off the road to your left. If in doubt, follow a sign sitting at the trailhead. The trail starts as a descent along a short staircase. Once you go down, the path levels out and hardly changes elevation from now on.
A steep gully on the left and a protective hill side with sporadic shrubs on the right become your dear companions for the time being. Sound of gurgling stream at the bottom of the gully calms. Intermixed with bird’s songs, it promises a greater discovery ahead of you.
On the Way to the Waterfall
A change in scenery is noticeable right after you pass through a tube tunnel that runs under the highway. All it takes is a few short steps from here to spot the gushing waterfall dropping from a steep cliff in the distance.
Few people linger at this mini overlook. Inspired by the first glimpses of McWay Falls, the hikers normally don’t waste time here, eager to visit if not the waterfall itself then at least a better vantage point.
Photography Tip: If I were you, I’d stay at this very spot a little bit longer. The place should appeal mostly to photographers, both amateur and profession. While everybody else takes pretty much the same photos, you inspire your friends and family to visit McWay Falls with the pictures that stand out.
When you think you have enough footage, proceed father down the trail that runs north around McWay Cove. Feel free to stop at random places to take more pictures of the waterfall from different angles.
TIP: Make sure your visit to McWay Falls is not only inspiring, but also safe. Don’t try to climb over wooden railings. The land may slide. No pictures are worth any severe scratches or accidents.
The McWay Falls Trail ends at an overlook with a direct view of the waterfall. An obstacle is erected at the halfway point of the original trail to prevent the hikers from walking farther.
McWay Falls Overlook Trail
Sadly, the unsafe conditions of the trail cut your visit to McWay Falls short. But even without hiking to the end of the original trail, the views of the cascading water against the sheer cliff are a sight to behold.
McWay Cove that receives the dropping water and speedily transports it into the ocean arouses as much curiosity as the waterfall itself. And similar to McWay Falls, it allows you to “visit” it only from the distance.
Created by a land slide in 1983, the picturesque cove denies access to all and everyone. The area is highly hazardous. Any attempt to get closer to McWay Fall or visit the cove are prohibited.
Things to Know before Visiting McWay Falls
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a fee area. To visit this Big Sur’s park and hike to the McWay Falls Overlook you must pay a $10 fee. The state park ticket is valid all day long and is accepted at all California state parks. So it only makes sense to use it to explore a few other state parks in the Big Sur area after a visit to McWay Falls.
The parking lot at the McWay Falls Trailhead is not big, but spacious enough. And yet lack of parking spaces is not uncommon in such a world-famous region as Big Sur.
We visited McWay Falls on an early Sunday afternoon. With the overcast weather and the sky threatening to burst into tears at any moment, we were able to secure an empty spot as soon as we drove across the bridge.
By the time, we got back to the lot after our short visit to the McWay Falls Overlook, a row of cars lined up from the bridge all the way to the center of the parking lot.
No Off-Trail Walking
Walking off the McWay Falls Trail is prohibited. Violators may be fined. Furthermore, there is no beach access.
Visiting McWay Falls with Pets
No four-legged visitors are allowed on the McWay Falls Overlook Trail.
Having a bottle of water is always recommended. Apart from it, grab a phone with a camera or a camera. It’s a shame to visit such a gorgeous site as McWay Falls and not capturing your adventures here in pictures or videos.
If you feel like you need something to lean on, fetch a pair of hiking staffs. These are optional, however, since the trail is short and virtually flat.