McWay Falls is perhaps the most iconic location along the Big Sur coastline, though Keyhole Rock at Pfeiffer Beach is a close second. The quarter-mile scenic walk begins in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park across the highway and travels through a tunnel under the road. Parking within the state park requires a fee, but free parking is available along the highway. Access to the trail is also available at the southern end of the roadside parking. The railing-protected trail winds along the cliffside, where multiple great views of McWay Falls and McWay Cove lie. The trail concludes at the site of the Waterfall House. Though the beach in McWay Cove looks beautiful and would be a great place to spend the afternoon, the beach is off limits and illegal to visit. Access to the beach is also dangerous, and multiple people have been seriously injured in attempting to visit the pristine sands.
This 80-foot waterfall is part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of the many state parks in the area. Easy access and the pristine cove help to make this scene very popular. At higher tides the falls make direct contact with the incoming waves. At lower tides the falls land on the beach and flow the remainder of the way into the Pacific Ocean. In times past, McWay Cove did not have a beach at its back and instead was only deep ocean, allowing McWay Falls to always drop off directly into the Pacific Ocean. On April 20, 1983, a giant landslide occurred a mile up the coast from McWay Cove. The sand and debris from the slide were eventually washed into the cove, forming the inaccessible beach that is visible today. Looking north from the old Waterfall House site, one can notice the scar in the mountainside where the cliffs once slid away.
The land on which the Waterfall House once stood was originally known as Saddle Rock Ranch, and it was purchased in 1924 by Helen and Lathrop Brown. The Waterfall House was completed for the Browns in 1940. Helen Hooper Brown became close friends with local rancher Julia Pfeiffer Burns in the last years of Julia’s life. Julia was the daughter of Big Sur pioneers Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, who used to ranch in the area as well. Julia ran cattle on Saddle Rock Ranch before the Browns purchased it. In 1961 the land and house were donated to the state by the Browns under the condition that the Waterfall House be demolished and the park be named after Helen’s late friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns.