This Coastal Waterfall Is One of California's Hidden Treasures — and It Runs Right Into the Pacific Ocean

·2 min read
Hiking trail in Big Sur, California with ocean views
Hiking trail in Big Sur, California with ocean views

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The California coastline already offers some of the most stunning views of the Pacific Ocean — and among the most underrated sights is the Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which leads to McWay Falls, one of the few waterfalls that empties directly into the Pacific.

Located in Big Sur in Monterey County, about an hour south of Carmel-by-the-Sea and about 75 minutes north of Hearst Castle, the half-mile round-trip trail is accessible from the south parking lot of the state park.

High angle view of rocks in sea at McWay Falls in California
High angle view of rocks in sea at McWay Falls in California

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Despite its brevity, the trail passes under the Pacific Coast Highway — also known as Highway 1 — before turning northward around McWay Cove to a viewpoint overlooking the waterfall, which descends about 80 feet into the ocean from a granite cliff. Also in sight is a pristine beach that was formed by a 1983 landslide. Since it is in an erosion zone, there is no beach access and the state reminds visitors to stay on the trail, since it's both "extremely hazardous" and trespassing is a "citable offense." But that also means that the beach is untouched, and "not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection," as the Visit California website described.

In fact, the tourism board — which highlighted the trail on its Instagram Reels recently — said that the trail "could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet," noting that the entire walk is nearly flat and opens up to "flawless views" that were a favorite of the pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for which the park was named.

Sunset at McWay Falls in Big Sur California, Dreamy Sunset Beach
Sunset at McWay Falls in Big Sur California, Dreamy Sunset Beach

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For those looking for more of a challenge in the park, there's also the mile-long round-trip Partington Cove Trail, which is quite steep, but leads to a wooden bridge and a 60-foot tunnel that opens up on a rocky beach.

Before proceeding on any of the area's hikes, the state cautions to check the trails section of the park's site to ensure pathways are open because the area is prone to erosion.