Discover McWay Falls – The Iconic Big Sur Waterfall Everyone Needs to See At Least Once

Written by Patrick MacFarland
Updated: October 3, 2023
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It’s as if the universe conspired to make one region in the world extremely beautiful that you’re constantly in awe at how beautiful nature is. The California coast is just one stunning postcard after one another. If you are on Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, and arrive in the region known as Big Sur, you will be enchanted with even more beauty. One of the most amazing scenes you’ll ever see is the iconic Big Sur waterfall called McWay Falls.

Drive along Route 1 and stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to make sure you see these beautiful falls. Let’s explore exactly where McWay Falls is, the history of how it became one of the famous natural landmarks in the region, the wildlife around the falls, and other fun facts about Big Sur and McWay Falls. 

Where Is McWay Falls?

McWay Falls is nestled right next to the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. If you drive along Route 1 and go into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you’ll end up at the falls. McWay Falls is unique in two ways. One, the falls flow from McWay Creek into the beach all year long, unlike many other waterfalls around the world. Two, McWay Falls flows right into the Pacific Ocean during high tide. McWay Falls is 80 feet tall and there is only one drop, unlike other waterfalls that can have several.

McWay Falls.

McWay Falls is one of only two tidal waterfalls in California, the other being Alamere Falls.

©RudyBalasko/iStock via Getty Images

History of McWay Falls

In 1924, Congressman Lathrop Brown visited the area and bought 1,600 acres of land in Big Sur from Christopher McWay. The falls are named after him and the state park that McWay Falls is in is named after Julia Pfieffer Burns who was friends with the Congressman and his wife. By the 1950s, however, Congressman Brown and his wife moved to Florida. Years later, Hélène Hooper Brown donated the entire acreage they owned to the state of California.

Wildlife Around Big Sur

The flora and fauna in Big Sur are very biodiverse. Many endangered or rare species exist in the region. For example, when it comes to the flora, there is a wild orchid only found in the region around Big Sur. Big Sur is also home to the southern end of the redwoods. It is the perfect climate for coast redwoods to grow and thrive. There are also other species of flora like the Santa Lucia fir (Abies bracteata) found only in the Santa Lucia Mountains. There is also the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), and the California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica).

In terms of fauna, mountain lions, deer, foxes, and wild boars that inhabit the region. Some coyotes roam around in the area. Big Sur used to be home to the California grizzly bear but they have disappeared or were killed by Spanish settlers. American black bears do make appearances in the region from time to time. There is rainbow trout found in the rivers and watersheds in the area and if you look up, you will be able to see California condors, as well.

Big Sur coastline in California

There are nine state parks or natural reserves in Big Sur, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where McWay Falls is located.

©Osprey Creative/

Geography and Climate in Big Sur

The geography of the area that surrounds the falls is vast and diverse. The Santa Lucia Mountains cover the eastern portion of Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean is the region’s border to the west. The Santa Lucia Mountains are the steepest slopes near a coastal region in the United States and much of the bodies of water in and around the mountains flow directly into the ocean. Tectonic plates are under the mountains, which makes the area prone to earthquakes.

Because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the region of Big Sur experiences dense fog that is consistent during the summer. Unfortunately, there is also a lack of precipitation in this region, making it prone to wildfires. In recent years, with the rise in droughts in California, there have been upticks in wildfires. The most recent wildfires in the past 20 years have devastated the area with hundreds of thousands of acres burning down.

When it comes to Big Sur’s climate, the region has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are dry and winters are cool and somewhat wet. During the wet winters, the mountain ranges in Big Sur can be blanketed in green, giving off a healthy look, unlike dry summers when the vegetation dries off. The record temperature high was 111 degrees Fahrenheit on September 7, 2020, and the record low was 26 degrees Fahrenheit on February 9, 2009.

Route 1 and Big Sur

California Route 1 is one of the most beautiful and iconic routes in the state of California. It is the longest of the state’s routes and the second longest in the country. Running from Leggett in Mendocino County to Dana Point in Orange County, the route passes along several landmarks worth exploring. 

The Golden Gate Bridge is part of Route 1. But when it comes to Big Sur, it’s the Bixby Creek Bridge that takes prominence. The part of the route in Big Sur was built between 1919 and 1937. Writer John Steinbeck was from Monterey and he gave back to his community by working on the road, as well. Besides the Bixby Creek Bridge, Route 1 also passes through the Rocky Creek Bridge and Big Creek Bridge. Each of them are iconic in their unique way. McWay Falls, McWay Beach, and McWay Cove are all very close to the road and easily accessible.

Scenic panoramic view of historic Bixby Creek Bridge along world famous Highway 1 in beautiful golden evening light at sunset with dramatic cloudscape in summer, Monterey County, California, USA

Big Sur, the area along the California Coast in which the falls are located, also boasts several other landmarks including the Bixby Creek Bridge and the Point Sur Lighthouse.


What to Do in Big Sur

Big Sur is a nature person’s paradise. There are many fun activities for you to do if you like being outside and exploring your surroundings. You can head to the mountains and do several hikes where you can see the ocean’s beauty. There are many state parks you can visit to see the wildlife in the region. You can also head to Pfeiffer Beach for some fun in the sun.

For those who would like to visit landmarks in the area or want to learn about the history of Big Sur and the region, several points of interest are sure to pique your interest. You can visit the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, which was featured prominently in the television series Big Little Lies. Make sure you head to the Point Sur Lighthouse, built in 1889 and still in use today. And finally, for some reading, you can go to the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

There are also special events that bring people together in Big Sur. The Big Sur International Marathon happens in late April every year. The Big Sur Folk Festival was an annual music festival that was held from 1965 to 1971. It is now defunct. It featured prominent artists like Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, and more.

Water from McWay Falls descends on beach at the McWay Cove in Big Sur, California.

Dr. Dre featured McWay Falls in his 2011 music video “I Need a Doctor.”



And there you have it, the iconic Big Sur waterfall everyone needs to see at least once is McWay Falls. It is gorgeous, stunning, and all of the synonyms of beautiful put together. Located in one of the most beautiful regions in California and the United States, McWay Falls will leave you in awe. You can play on the beach, relax, and contemplate life, while you look at the setting sun. McWay Falls, Big Sur, and the California coast are the perfect setting to think about how beautiful life is.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © kyolshin/iStock via Getty Images

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About the Author

Patrick Macfarland is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel, geography, and history. Patrick has been writing for more than 10 years. In the past, he has been a teacher and a political candidate. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from SDSU and a Master's Degree in European Union Studies from CIFE. From San Diego, California, Patrick loves to travel and try new recipes to cook.

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