Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park is a four-square-mile, 3,762 acre park in the Big Sur area of California that stretches from the rocky coastline into the 3,000 foot ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. With a majestic fairy tale like cove, an 80 foot waterfall plunging off vertical granite cliffs, and steep canyons filled with ancient, 2,500 year old, 300 foot redwood trees, this California state park is one of the most visited parks along the Pacific Coast Highway.
We had seen a glimpse of McWay falls as we drove past Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on the first day of our Big Sur road trip, but the traffic and the parking was so congested, we decided to skip it and come back the next day.
On day two of our Big Sur family vacation, we first visited Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to hike the Valley View Trail and the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, and then we headed straight to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park — and it was already crowded with the “Parking Lot Full” sign already next to the road.
In our giant adventure mobile (Brian’s truck) parking can be a bit tough and we really didn’t want to try and squeeze into a arrow space on the side of the road, so we drove past the entrance twice and on the second pass, saw an open spot, and pulled in. We were stopped by a ranger, but as soon as we pointed out the open spot, she let us through. Hallelujah!
Hiking McWay Falls
While there are longer, more difficult trails available at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, like the Ewoldsen Trail, the Tan Bark Trail, the Tinhouse Fire Road, and The Partington Cove Trail, the most popular and famous trail is the McWay Falls Waterfall Overlook Trail.
McWay Creek begins nearly three thousand feet up in the Santa Lucia Mountains and ends in a spectacular, year-round, 80 foot waterfall plunging over granite cliffs. At only .6 miles roundtrip, the wheel chair accessible Overlook Trail passes under the Pacific Coast Highway, turns north to curve around McWay Cove, and overlooks McWay Falls and the beach below. The trail ends at an observation deck that provides majestic views of the this Big Sur waterfall, panoramic views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean, and glimpses of the Waterfall House foundation and garden terraces.
The Overlook Trail leaves from the parking lot and at first, you’re actually walking away from the ocean, so it will feel like you’re going the wrong way. The trail however quickly loops around to the large round culvert tunnel that takes you under Highway 1 to the cliffs. Once through the tunnel, you can follow the trail left or right.
- Heading right takes you north toward the observation deck and gorgeous views of McWay Falls spilling onto the beach below.
- Heading left takes you south past two environmental campsites above McWay Falls and up a steep climb to a coastal overlook. (If you keep going, you’ll eventually reach Highway 1, so it’s a good alternate park entry point if the main parking lot is full.)
We first headed right over to the observation deck to check out McWay Falls. The waterfall is tucked inside a cove with sparkling turquoise blue waters and a pristine sandy beach that is protected by rocky outcroppings. The scene looks like something from a fairy tale. In fact, the cove looks so much like Mermaid Lagoon from Peter Pan that it’s easy to imagine Captain Hook’s pirate ship anchored in middle.
After we saw the waterfall and cove, the amazing view, and the Waterfall House remains, we backtracked to the tunnel exit and followed the Overlook Trail south past the campsites (where we took a sunscreen break because no one was camping), and up a VERY steep dirt path to an incredible panoramic view of California’s pacific Coastline. We then headed back to the car, stopping to check out the Pelton Wheel on the way back.
The McWay Falls Transformation
McWay Falls used to be a coastal waterfall or a tidefalls that emptied directly into the ocean, but in 1983 a massive fire and landslide just north of the park changed everything. Highway 1 was closed for almost a year for reconstruction and eight million cubic uyards of dirt and rock were pushed into the ocean to stablize the cliffs.
Over time, the ocean current carried the dirt from the landslide and construction south and created a beach at the foot of several coves along the shoreline, including McWay Falls. The waterfall now plunges not into the ocean, but onto the beach, and in certain times of day, into the tides.
Activities At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Area
The Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Area, established in 1970, is located between Partington Point and McWay Creek. The north cove of Partington Cove is the entry to the underwater area. Special-use permits, available at the Big Sur Station, allow experienced scuba divers to explore the area.
McWay Waterfall House
Just above the McWay Falls Overlook are the foundation and terrace remnants of the McWay Waterfall House. Completed in 1940, the two story house that boasted terraced gardens, large windows, and stunning views of the coast, became the home of early Big Sur residents Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown. If you look closely, you can also see the old electric railcar tramway that connected the house to the highway and a nearby caretaker’s cottage.
Helen Hooper Brown was an east coast heiress. Orphaned at age 15, she inherited $10,000,000. In 1911, Helen married Lathrop Brown, a close friend to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Browns purchased Saddle Rock Ranch in 1924 from Christopher McWay who originally homesteaded the canyon. It was then that she met Julia Pfeifer Burns, who, with her husband John Burns, ran cattle on the Saddle Rock Ranch property.The two women became close friends and in 1961, Helen Brown gave Saddle Rock Ranch to the state for use as a state park dedicated to the memory of Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a true pioneer women.
When Helen donated the land to the state of California, she stipulated that the house should be converted to a museum, or if it was not completed in five years, that it be torn down. The State was unable to use the house for a “public purpose,” and it was demolished in 1966 to comply with the requirements of Mrs. Brown’s gift deed.
Electricity for the Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown Waterfall House was generated with a Pelton Wheel that was spun by the waters flowing down a penstock from a small dam about 2000 feet up McWay Creek. Inside the wheel’s original building near the parking lot, is a model of the Pelton Wheel and a wall display that describes how it worked and provides historical facts.
In December and January, the beach at the end of the McWay Falls Overlook Trail is an excellent Big Sur whale watching spot. Many gray whales migrating southward to their breeding and calving grounds off the Baja California coast pass close to shore near this point. In March and April, the whales can be seen returning north to their summer feeding grounds. If you look closely, you might also be able to see a California sea lion, harbor seal, or sea otter in the cove!
If you hike south on the Overlook Trail after passing under the highway, you’ll reach two environmental campsites located near the top of McWay Falls on the west side of Highway 1 south of McWay Cove. Both sites are hike-in only and no vehicle access is permitted. These sites are extremely popular year round and usually fill up six months in advance.
There are two established picnic areas in the park with picnic tables and charcoal grills. One is in the parking area near the Ewoldsen Trailhead. The other is on the Ewoldsen trail, in the redwoods, a short walk in.
The only downside to this Big Sur Road Trip experience is the crowds — and I’m not talking small crowds. I’m talking hoards of people everywhere you turn.
Because McWay Falls is so famous, at almost any time of day, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot is full. They put a “lot full” sign at the entrance and when we were there, a person was standing guard too! Luckily we could point to a spot that had opened up from someone leaving and they let us in to park. I think they keep the “lot full” sign up all day to discourage a giant line of cars from entering the parking lot. It is a small lot and it’s not a loop, so that could be come a nightmare really quickly. Also, because the parking lot fill up so quickly, and because a lot of people don’t want to pay the $10/car state park fee, there are also cars parked on both sides of Highway 1 in both directions.
It’s a madhouse, because in every car is a group of people who all want to see McWay Falls. So the McWay Falls Overlook Trail is crowded and loud. The observation deck is jam-packed with selfie-takers, photographers, smiling families, and large groups taking every variation of a group photo you might ever imagine.
While the waterfall is absolutely gorgeous and a must-see destination for any Big Sur traveler, this was one of our least favorite hikes purely for the noise and crowds — but it was a holiday week and the weather was perfect. Next time, I’ll visit the park in the morning on a weekday!
Know Before You Go
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located at 52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, 48 miles north of Ragged Point, 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and 37 miles south of Carmel on California’s Pacific coast.
- Download the official Julia Pfeiffer Burns Sate Park brochure.
- The Overlook Trail is wheelchair accessible.
- Whale Watching season is December and January and again in March and April.
- Be sure to take the short spur trail off the McWay Falls Overlook Trail to see the Pelton Wheel display — it’s a super short walk.
- This California State Park gets VERY busy and VERY crowded. The parking lot fills up fast and often you’ll find “Parking Lot Full” signs on display all day long. It is so popular that cars even park on the sides of the road up and down the Pacific Coast Highway — this is one you want to plan on visiting early in the day!
- Paying for day use access into one California state park ($10/car per day) will get you into all California state parks, including Big Sur state parks like Andrew Molera State Park, Garrapata State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Limekiln State Park.
- There is no beach or ocean access in this state park. Cliff areas beyond the fenced boundaries, including the beach, Saddle Rock, and McWay Falls area are completely off limits.
- Dogs are not allowed on any State Park trails, but they are allowed in the paved parking area. Dogs must be on a leash at all times.
Other Nearby Big Sur Attractions
While McWay Falls, pouring over the cliffs onto the sandy beach below, is one of the most beautiful and well known waterfalls in Big Sur, it is definitely not the only waterfall. There are waterfalls in several other state parks and throughout the Big Sur region. There are also gorgeous beaches, easy-access picnic grounds, campgrounds, and hiking trails for suitable for the whole family.
When traveling south on Highway 1 from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, it is approximately:
- 15 miles to Limekiln State Park
- 22 miles to Jade Cove
- 23 miles to Sand Dollar Beach
- 25 miles to Willow Creek Picnic Area And Beach
- 34 miles to the Salmon Creek Falls Trailhead
- 38 miles to Ragged Point Inn & Resort
- 55 miles to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
- 55 miles to Hearst Castle
When traveling north on Highway 1 from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, it is approximately:
- 9 miles to the Pfeiffer Beach turnouff (Sycamore Canyon Road)
- 10 miles to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- 13 miles to the Big Sur River Inn
- 15 miles to Andrew Molera State Park
- 19 miles to Point Sur State Historic Park
- 27 miles to Garrapata State Park
- 34 miles to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- 42 miles to Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row in Monterey, California
- 44 miles to Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove
- 45 miles to the Point Pinos Lighthouse