Of Big Sur's iconic coastal landscapes, the one that is likely to be pictured in most people's minds is the stretch of coast comprising Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This dramatic section of central Big Sur is one of the most picturesque settings in California. Here the Santa Lucia mountains run into a Pacific Ocean colored with a range of rich blue hues. Forested canyons fill gaps between exposed dry ridges, and near-shore kelp forests buffer the coves and shoreline. This is a rich, wild landscape that provides habitat for impressive wildlife that includes the endangered California condor, bald eagles, and scores of marine mammals.
The park is best known for its centerpiece attraction: McWay Falls gracefully plunges onto the sands of McWay Cove some 80 feet below. A incredibly picturesque cove, it is actually inaccessible, and there are no trails leading down from the ADA-accessible overlook. While McWay Falls is not to be missed, the area is popular and can get busy. Try visiting early in the morning to experience this beautiful place during a quieter time of day.
There are plenty of other gems within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that the crowds eschew. A short walk up McWay Creek from the main parking area accesses a network of trails that include the Ewoldsen, Canyon Falls, and Tan Bark Trails. These trails explore redwood-lined canyons and traverse the Santa Lucia mountainsides, offering an elevated perspective on this magnificent landscape.
Two miles north of McWay Falls is Partington Cove, the only ocean access point within the park. Blink and you’ll miss the trailhead to the cove on the drive by. A short but steep access trail leads down to Partington Cove, which consists of two separate coves connected by an old tunnel. The clear waters of the cove beckon to explorers; however, diving is only allowed here by a special-use permit obtainable through California State Parks (call or inquire at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park 11 miles north).
Parking at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park fills up quickly, and there is a standard State Park fee (transferable from other parks) for using the lot. Many opt to park on the side of Highway 1. Just make sure to look both ways before crossing.