McWay Waterfall

Explore Majestic Waterfalls in California

The McWay Waterfall Trail is located in the sparsely populated central coast of California area known as Big Sur. Big Sur is where the beautiful Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly along the Pacific Coast treating visitors to some occasional difficult hikes, but beautiful views from the top. The McWay Waterfall Trail is not one of those "occasionally difficult" hikes, in fact, it is one of the shortest trails in the Big Sur area, but visitors definitely will not want for better views.

At just under a mile, the McWay Waterfall Trail is perfect for the beginner hiker, or even the advanced hiker looking for a way to pass about an hour or so of time. It is a popular destination for photographers because of the prize at the end as well as families as the well packed trail is easy enough for even the most quickly tiring of toddlers. The trail itself is located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which provides both northern and southern coastal views. For those who pass the park, they are sure to spot the trail's main attraction of the McWay Falls from Highway 1 which leads through the park and up into Northern California.

After parking, visitors should look for the sign pointing to the Overlook / Waterfall Trail / Pelton Wheel and follow it straight ahead. After walking down some wooden steps and traversing through a large, round culvert tunnel under the highway, visitors will officially be on the McWay Waterfall Trail, but more impressively, be greeted with a wonderful view over the ocean.

McWay Trail tunnel

The well maintained path continues only a few short meters until visitors will be greeted with sights of the McWay Falls. The trail leads to various vantage points around the falls, most of which are usually crowded with both amateur and professional photographers during the warmer months. The McWay Falls are easily the most pictured landmark in the Big Sur area and it is unlikely that potential visitors researching the area will not see at least one picture of it.

McWay Wate falls

For years, the McWay Falls dumped directly into the ocean; however after the destructive combination of a massive fire, landslide and highway reconstruction from 1983 to 1984 these events filled the cove with enough materials to form a sandy little beach. This sandy beach has since created its own little pond, blocking the falls from dumping into the ocean. The falls and the surrounding area are all named after Christopher McWay who was an early settler and farmer in the area. McWay and his son Christopher Jr. travelled from New York State to the area in 1874, lured not by the prospect for finding gold like many of those in the gold rush of 1848, but rather the prospect of better farm land. The park itself is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a local and legendary pioneer in the area. This impressed the later resident Helen Brown, who named the park in her honor.

End of trail

While some hike the first few vantage points before heading back, the end of the trail is marked by a final vantage point that allows visitors to gaze north up the coast. However, for those that want to go one step further, behind this vantage point over a hill lies the ruin of the old Waterfall House. This house was built by Lathrop and Helen Brown. Lathrop Brown was a Congressman from New York and was said to be close personal friends of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930's. This once gorgeous house had been intended to be preserved but after a long and fruitless struggle to save it, it was torn down by the state in 1965. For those exploring the ruins, look closely at the ground back towards the highway and one can even find the old tramway which ran from the highway to the house. However, the biggest attraction is the view of the ocean, the Brown's hired a surveyor to call this view 'Poison Point,' as the cliff was so sheer that they stated that one drop would kill a man. For those that have further interest in the Brown estate, he built a secondary house further north in the Redwood forest by Partington Creek called the Tin House. Like its name suggest, it is a house made of tin built by the Browns. However, after spending one night there, they left never to return as the tin made the house unbearably noisy and expanded and contracted with the temperature.

While visitors are walking along the trail and throughout the others within the park, they may notice a few people digging up the area and removing plants. Don't be alarmed, in recent years; park officials have dedicated themselves to removing invasive and non-native species from the park. The plants, most of which are eucalyptus trees, were left by the Brown's during their stay in the area and pose a threat to the native plants.

For those not quite ready to head home yet, as you head back toward the Highway 1 tunnel, the trail splits off and follows the coastline south. This will take visitors down to the ocean and give an alternative view of the falls from the ground which is definitely worth a visit. For those that opt to head back through the tunnel, the trail splits yet again leading to a Pelton water wheel. This is an old water wheel in which the Brown's used to power their house and the small railcar that ran up and down the mountain. It's not quite as interesting as the falls, but it a pleasant little side trip.

McWay Creek Pelton Wheel

While this trail may be unforgivably short for the more advanced hikers, for those who enjoy the scenery of hiking more so than the difficulty of the hike itself, there are few better trails in Big Sur. The McWay Falls are considered to be the best and most beautiful waterfalls in the state, so visitors to the area should be sure to enjoy it on their way through.

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