How to Visit McWay Falls: Iconic Spot in Big Sur

How to visit McWay Falls, the second most popular landmark in Big Sur and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in California?

Last updated: May 7, 2024

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
A complete guide to visiting McWay Falls, Big Sur: McWay Falls Overlook Trail

NOTE: As of May 7, 2024, Julia Pfeiffer Burn State Park, including McWay Falls, is temporarily closed due to a recent landslide. Any camping reservations are canceled. No estimated time is given when the park may reopen. So make sure to check out recent road conditions before planning your trip to McWay Fall.

Visiting (and Missing) McWay Falls in Big Sur

How hard is it to visit McWay Falls? The coveted waterfall nestles along the Big Sur shore in central California and is quite easy to see and photograph.

I took this statement too lightly the first time we explored the panoramic route years ago. I thought that if we drove slowly enough, we could spot the waterfall from the road. Isn’t it what all the pictures of the Internet looked like: a view of McWay Falls from a distance, presumably the side of the scenic drive?

I was wrong. We missed Big Sur’s iconic site during our first trip to central California. But we made sure to see and hike as close as we could to McWay Falls during our recent road trip through California’s national parks and Big Sur.

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
Views of McWay Falls from the McWay Falls Overlook Trail

How to Visit McWay Falls: Location

The elusive waterfall is a sight that inspired countless road trips across California and even neighboring states. Nestled between Monterey, Northern California, and San Simeon, Central California, McWay Falls is one of the prime destinations along the scenic, 90-mile Big Sur.

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 neighbors Limekiln State Park.

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
McWay Falls sits in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

How to Visit McWay Falls: Direction 

I invested more time in planning our road trip this time around. No more guessing and hoping for the best while looking for the iconic waterfall in one of the most beautiful California state parks. So I jotted down the exact distances and correct directions, including the time it would take us to get to McWay Falls from the closest towns and cities. 

  • With that said, McWay Falls sits about 52 miles from San Simeon. The village is located at the head of the Big Sur area and is your best guidepost 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 waterfall from San Francisco. It’s only an hour drive to get to McWay from Carmel-by-the-Sea, the northern gateway to Big Sur. 

TIP: Download an offline map before heading to the Big Sur area. The phone service is not reliable here.

A well-marked sign to McWay Falls is 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. Annual national park passes are not accepted here

From here follow a paved road across a bridge to a small parking lot. Park, grab a camera and water, and set off on a short hiking (more like walking) adventure to McWay Falls. 

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
More than ready to hike to the McWay Falls Overlook
How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
Along the McWay Falls Overlook Trail

McWay Falls Overlook Trail

  • Distance: 0.5-mile, round-trip trail
  • Elevation Gain: Practically flat
  • Difficultly: Easy
  • Time: 20-30 minutes 
  • Waterfall: 80 foot tall

Hiking to the Waterfall Overlook

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. The path levels out right after this 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 the gurgling stream at the bottom of the gully calms. Intermixed with bird’s songs, it promises a greater discovery ahead. 

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 McWay Falls dropping from a steep cliff in the distance. 

Few people linger at this mini overlook. Inspired by the first glimpses of McWay Falls, the majority of the hikers don’t waste time here, however, eager to see the waterfall from a more flattering vantage point. 

The McWay Falls Trail ends at an overlook with a direct view of the waterfall. An barricade is erected at the halfway point of the original trail to prevent the hikers from walking farther. 

Things to Know

Photography Tip: If I were you, I’d stay at the first spot a little bit longer. Presenting the waterfalls from a different angle, the place appeals mostly to photographers, both amateurs and professionals. While everybody else takes pretty much the same photos from the second (end of the trail) overlook, your photos of McWay Fall can surely stand out.

Safety Tip: Stay safe while hiking to and photographing McWay Falls. Don’t climb over wooden railings. The land may slide. No pictures are worth any severe scratches or accidents.

Hiking in Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
Tube tunnel along the McWay Falls Overlook Trail
How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
The falls at last

McWay Falls Cove

The unsafe conditions of the trail cut your hike to McWay Falls short. In half, in fact. What’s left of the original trail turned into the McWay Falls Overlook Trail. The end of this “new” trail is the closest point you can get to and photograph McWay Falls, plunging against a sheer cliff down onto McWay Cove.

Created by a landslide in 1983, the secluded cove doesn’t collect the waterfall water. Instead, it lets the runoff stream farther down until it spills into the ocean. When the tide is high, the cove “shrinks” and McWay Falls plunges directly into the Pacific.

Note: Due to its hazardous conditions, the cove has been closed for several years now. Any attempts to get closer to McWay Fall or the beach are prohibited. In fact, hiking beyond the McWay Falls Overlook is illegal.

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
McWay Falls drops onto McWay Cove

Things to Know before Visiting McWay Falls

1. Entrance

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a paid area. Day admission is $10 per car. The ticket can be used in all California state parks during the same day.

2. Parking

The McWay Falls parking lot is spacious compared to other parks in Bug Sur. And yet the lack of parking spaces is not uncommon, especially during weekends and holidays. So try to be among the first visitors to secure a parking spot without any wait time.

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 claim an empty space as soon as we drove across the bridge. 

By the time we got back to the lot after our short hike to the McWay Falls Overlook, a row of cars lined up from the bridge all the way to the center of the parking lot. 

3. No Off-Trail Walking

Walking off the McWay Falls Trail is prohibited. Violators may be fined. Furthermore, there is no beach access. 

4. Visiting McWay Falls with Pets

No four-legged visitors are allowed on the McWay Falls Overlook Trail.

5. Packing Essentials

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 and not be able to document your adventure in pictures or videos. 

If you feel like you need something to lean on, fetch a pair of hiking staffs. These are optional, though, since the trail is short and virtually flat. 

How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
A complete guide to hiking the McWay Falls Overlook Trail

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