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Big Sur's magical scenery includes lush mountains, towering redwoods, windswept beaches and views of the Pacific Ocean in all colors of blue and green. Thanks to an abundance of rivers, streams, and creeks in this area combined with steep elevation changes, there are also many waterfalls.
This post reviews the most beautiful waterfalls in Big Sur, including directions to get to each and some of the best pictures from Instagram. There are four waterfalls that are well worth the effort to go see. Here they are listed from shortest to tallest -
- Pfeiffer Falls
- McWay Falls
- Limekiln Falls
- Salmon Creek Falls
This area is often victim to two types of natural disasters: wildfires and floods from subsequent rains. Because of this, the state parks, trails and even Highway 1 are often shut down due to mudslides and damage. At the time of this writing, recent storms have closed access to a few of these waterfalls.
So if you are making a special trip to see anything in this area, please check local travel information as part of your planning. Our post on 6 State Parks in Big Sur will give you more information on the parks as well as other trails you can hike in the area.
This 60-foot waterfall is in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, nestled among giant trees along a valley trail. Unfortunately, the trail has been closed since early 2018 and is currently undergoing restoration, but should hopefully re-open soon.
Once entering the park, follow signs across from the lodge for the trailhead. After passing cabins and crossing a road, turn right and stop for a look at the "cookie tree" and its information panel. Cross over a wooden footbridge and then continue on the right fork of the trail to get to the waterfall. The trip is less than 2 miles in total.
Iconic McWay Falls is 80 feet tall, and from the typical vantage point, you can see its entire height as it spills onto a pristine white sand beach and empties into the ocean. However, the only way to see it is from above and far away because the beach area is closed to visitors.
The falls are within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and this is the note on the park website:
Cliff areas beyond the fenced boundaries, including the BEACH, SADDLE ROCK and MCWAY FALLS area are completely off limits. Trespassing into these closed areas is a serious offense, resulting in a citation and arrest. The areas are extremely hazardous. Failure to respect the boundaries has resulted in complex rescue operations and tragic loss of lives. Please stay on the trail and out of these closed areas.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is separate from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, mentioned above in the section about Pfeiffer Falls.
Nonetheless, the views are absolutely gorgeous and worth a quick stop. Unfortunately, due to previous wildfires followed by heavy rains, the trails have suffered a lot of erosion and are partially closed. But according to the website you can still view the falls.
There are two ways to view the falls. If you wish to enter the park, there is a fee. From the east end of the parking lot, take the Canyon Trail to the end. This route is about 1/2 mile. The Canyon trail is closed from recent storm damage as of February 2019, but you can still see the waterfall from an alternate route.
The second path is using the Overlook Trail, which is free and accessed directly from Highway 1. Park along the highway and follow the signs through the tunnel underneath the road. While this path has also suffered some environmental damage, it is level enough to be wheelchair accessible (from the south parking lot), or you can take stairs down to the path. The walk is .6 miles round trip.
This stunning 100-foot waterfall is in Limekiln State Park. The best time to see it is during the winter or early spring when the seasonal rains will provide the greatest water flow. Near its top, the waterfall splits into two main branches and falls down in heavy sheets.
Enter the park from Highway 1, and head east (away from the ocean through the campground). You'll find a kiosk and a bridge which is the start of the trails. Take the Limekiln trail about .3 miles to the Falls trail branch and follow it to the end to see the falls. Although there are also bridges along the way, you will cross over narrower parts of Limekiln Creek (without a bridge) to get there, so your shoes will get wet. With the exception of the creek crossings and the last bit of the hike to get to the base of the waterfall, the trail is relatively level. It's approximately 1.6 miles round-trip.
The park does have an entry fee and designated visiting hours, so do consult the park information before making your visit.
Salmon Creek Falls
This 120-foot waterfall with twin streams is less than a mile (round trip) hike along Salmon Creek Trail. The trailhead is at a horseshoe turnout along Highway 1, at GPS coordinates 35° 48′ 56.62″N 121° 21′ 31.64″W. Follow the trail for 300 feet, taking the left fork, and then walk through the boulders toward the sound of the water.
For the more adventurous, if you want an unobstructed view you must use a rope attached to a large boulder to hoist yourself up. Then walk across the rock to get closer to the falls.
There is no entrance fee or permit required. The parking area is small and unpaved but is found at the largest hairpin turn along the highway.
When's the best time to see the waterfalls?
You can visit Big Sur throughout the year, weather permitting. The main issue you need to worry about weather-wise is rain during winter time.
As for temperatures, Big Sur weather is often variable, no matter the time of year. Average temperatures range from the 50s to 80s, and there is often high humidity due to close proximity to the ocean. We've seen temperatures in the 80s in the Monterey Bay area after driving through the hot California valley in temperatures that reached 104!
Keeping that in mind, visiting the area is great any time of year, as long as you have a good forecast for a sunny day. The waterfalls will be there throughout the year but if you want to see them at peak volume, early spring is usually a good bet.
What to bring when visiting Big Sur waterfalls
1. Layered clothes - including a waterproof jacket during winter
We mentioned how cold the coast can be, even in summertime, so it's important to wear layers. If you start out in the morning, it may be cold, windy, and foggy, but once the sun comes through, a heavy coat may leave you too warm.
Especially near water, reflecting sunlight can affect vision, so be sure to carry sunglasses or a hat to screen your eyes, even if it doesn't seem like you'll need them when you start out.
You will be by the ocean and on a sunny day, the water reflects the sun so there's plenty of radiation. It's best to wear sunscreen, especially if you have sensitive skin.
4. Hiking shoes
While at least one waterfall can be observed pretty much from Highway 1, the others require short hikes. If it's been raining in the area, the terrain could be wet, muddy and slippery, so sturdy hiking boots would be a good idea.
5. Poison ivy gear (optional)
You could be hiking through woodsy areas, so in the summertime, bug repellent can be helpful. Be mindful of poison oak and poison ivy too. If you know you're sensitive to these toxic plants, consider bringing poison ivy cleaners and medication.
Cell phone service is spotty as well, so always let someone know where you are going in case of an emergency. Bringing water and food is also a good idea. Even during the day, it may sometimes be gloomy, so it couldn't hurt to carry a lightweight flashlight as well.
- There is wildlife in the area, including mountain lions. If hiking with children, please keep them close to you.
- Stick to the trails, and don't go into restricted areas, or camp overnight in a place that does not allow it.
- Temperatures can easily drop into the 30s and 40s overnight. Be prepared if you plan on taking a long hike.
- When you leave the area, do a quick brush-off of your clothes and hair to ensure you didn't pick up any ticks or other insects.
- Last but not least, bring a camera to capture the beautiful scenery you will encounter during your hike.
We hope you enjoyed this overview of the waterfalls in Big Sur. If you make the trip, we're sure you won't regret it!