Day Trip: Big Sur’s McWay Falls

McWay Falls: The Gem of Big Sur

In this issue we continue south on Highway 1 to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 37 miles south of Carmel at mile marker 35.8.

McWay Falls is a breathtaking waterfall located in the Big Sur area. The waterfall cascades down an amazing 80-foot cliff to its final destination, the Pacific Ocean. It is an inspiring sight that attracts photographers and nature enthusiasts from all over the country.

During high tide, McWay Falls pours directly into the ocean. Because of this trajectory, it is considered to be a tidefall. At lower tides the gorgeous white sandy beach is revealed and it is an astonishing sight! It’s truly beautiful to see the waterfall stream first onto the beach, then find its way to the Pacific Ocean with the turquoise water in the cove as it pushes white waves onto the clean sandy beach. The waterfall is fed by McWay Creek, which runs all year long. During the spring and winter months more water runs through the creek, creating a more prominent waterfall, making for a more striking photograph.

The beach area at McWay Falls has not always been there. In 1983 record rainfall pounded the Big Sur area causing several landslides and mudflows. These mudflows fell into the ocean, north of the park, and closed Highway 1. It took about a year to repair the road and reopen the highway. The wave surge and tides moved some of the landslide material to the base of the falls, forming the sandy beach area that is there today. Some people say that over time, the action of the surf may cause the beach to erode back to its pre-landslide condition, when there was no beach and the falls poured directly into the ocean all the time.

You can view and photograph the waterfall from the side of the road along the highway but there can be some obstruction from this vantage point. The better choice is to go into the state park parking lot and take a short, quarter mile walk from the parking area down a short staircase, then along a well maintained and easy to navigate trail. To access the park there is a $10 entry fee per vehicle but there are discounts for seniors, veterans, and disabled persons. The California State Parks Golden Bear pass is also accepted. Some logistical items worth mentioning are that the area is a drone free zone and dogs are not allowed beyond the parking area. There are restrooms in the parking area. Also, because there are some steps that lead to the trail, it is not wheelchair accessible. More information can be found at: or by calling (831) 667-1112.

Safety is important when photographing McWay Falls. A fence along the trail prevents people from going into an area that has been affected by erosion. The park website warns that the cliff areas beyond the fenced boundaries, including the beach, are off limits. They warn of citation or arrest for trespassers. There have been complex rescue operations and loss of life of some who did not heed this warning. The park asks that you please stay on the trail. As of February 6, 2023, the park is open and so is the overlook trail, however some of the other trails are still closed from the heavy rains. Please check the park website for details before you go.

Now, for some practical tips when it comes to photographing McWay Falls: McWay Falls is a truly unique subject. The combination of the flowing waterfall, the blue ocean, the turquoise water of the inlet and the surrounding cliffs creates a dazzling landscape that is sure to take your breath away. To capture the full extent of this beauty consider using a wideangle lens. This will allow you to include the waterfall, the ocean and the cliffs in one shot, creating a truly spectacular image. Another technique would be to zoom in a little more and take a long exposure. This will blur the water and create a sense of motion, adding an extra dimension and beauty to your photo. The time of day is also crucial. The best light for photography is during the golden hour, which is one hour before sunset. The light is usually soft and warm and the colors in the sky and ocean can be truly lovely.

McWay Falls is a truly stunning natural wonder that offers photographers a unique and awe-inspiring subject to capture. Whether you are a seasoned pro or a beginner, there is something truly special about this waterfall that may inspire you to pick up your camera and start shooting. With a little planning and patience, you will be able to create a memory that will last a lifetime. If you decide to check it out, remember to leave only footprints and be respectful of the beauty that nature provides us so it will be available to future generations.

Jeff Bentz is a travel and landscape photographer in Gilroy, Ca
Instagram @jeff_bentz_photography


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