I visited the famous McWay Falls during my trip to Big Sur this past August and while overlooking the waterfall, I couldn’t help but have the urge to explore and get down to the beach and waterfall area. I figured it wasn’t legal to get down there, but I did some research, and here’s what I found.
It’s illegal to go down to the beach and waterfall at McWay Falls in Big Sur. This is due to safety as well as the beach’s preservation. Even if you were allowed, the hillside is too steep to hike. However, they do have a short trail that leads to an overlook, part of which is also closed from some hillside erosion.
Still, I wanted to find out more, including if you can swim or take a kayak down there. Let’s take a look at some more details about McWay Falls.
Why You Can’t Go to The Beach at McWay Falls
For safety reasons, you cannot go down to the beach and waterfall at McWay Falls. It is illegal and there are usually park rangers patrolling the area. There have been reports of people getting fined.
When we went to McWay Falls, there was a single short trail with one main vantage point to take photos of (this is why all of the photos of McWay Falls look the same).
I recommend asking a park ranger if you can swim, kayak, or paddle-board to McWay falls from another access point (such as Partington Trail further north). Keep in mind the distance, weather, tides, and more.
For a potential secret way to get down to the actual beach, check out the video at the end of this post.
How To Get To McWay Falls Trail
McWay Falls Trail is a popular outlook located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. This spot is where mountainous terrain and redwoods meet a beach along the pacific with an 80 ft. waterfall.
To get there, we searched “McWay Waterfall Trail, Big Sur, CA 93920” on Google Maps. The trailhead is on the east side of Highway 1.
Once you get to the outlook, there is only about a 50 ft. area to view the waterfall. Part of the trail is closed due to unsafe conditions.
Keep in mind, much of Big Sur gets a heavy marine layer and cold weather at times, so it’s best to always bring layers while hiking here. Check out my article on fog in Big Sur for more information about the weather and the best times to visit.
Parking and Cost
There’s a parking lot that belongs to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at the actual trailhead, but costs $10 (cash). When we went, we were lucky and grabbed a spot right on the side of Highway 1, along with many other cars so we didn’t have to pay the fee.
However, roadside parking is usually really busy and requires you to parallel park with traffic behind you, so it can be a bit tricky.
Where we parked to the trailhead was only about a 3-5 minute walk.
Head out on this 1.2-mile loop trail near Big Sur, California. Generally considered an easy route, it takes an average of 32 min to complete. This is a very popular area for birding and walking, so you’ll likely encounter other people while exploring. You’ll need to leave pups at home — dogs aren’t allowed on this trail.AllTrails
Is McWay Falls Dangerous?
If you stay on the trail, you are totally safe.
Although, McWay Falls area can be seen as dangerous. It is known to have steep cliffs, and some of the trail is closed off due to unsafe conditions.
This is why it’s illegal to climb down to the beach and waterfall. There have been cases where people fall when they misplace their footing after going off the trail.
If you were to go against the signs that tell you to stay on the trail, park rangers do have the ability to give you a fine or even arrest you.
Citations, Fines, and Arrests – Park rangers are also empowered to write fines and make arrests whenever the situation calls for it.The Park’s Life
Other Things to Do Near Big Sur
I asked a few locals from Central and Southern California what their top spots in Big Sur were and they said these are a must-see.
1. Salmon Creek Falls
Salmon Creek Falls is a natural swimming hole in San Simeon, CA which is known for its waterfall. Visitors take the Salmon Creek Trail, a 0.3-mile in-and-out hike. This trail is open at all times of the year.
Nepenthe is a restaurant with an array of different food options. This restaurant is right off Highway One, among the Santa Lucia Mountains, and is known for its phenomenal views of the Pacific Ocean and rugged coast.
When we visited Big Sur, we really wanted to make it a priority to stop there but there were road closures around it.
3. Tanbark and Tin House Trail
The Tanbark Trail is a trail off Highway One. If you are looking to see redwoods while visiting, I recommend going here. The trail begins with a beautiful creek, and redwood trees, and ends with views of the ocean. This trail made me feel like I was in a fairy tale.
When we were in Big Sur, we did the Tanbark Trail, but we ran out of time and didn’t make it to the Tin House at the summit. We passed some locals on the way down and they said we were missing out big time! Note, it’s a tougher hike than it seems, so allow lots of time and bring lots of water!
Here’s the link to the trail on All Trails if you’d like to check it out!
By the way, here is the video by Stephen about paddle-boarding to McWay Falls. Check out his replies in the comments of the video for more details.