BIG SUR, Calif. — McWay Falls is picture perfect.
The waterfall drops 80 feet into sandy McWay Cove along California’s Big Sur. It’s a stunning image and geographic feature of Land’s End on America’s Left Coast, tucked off California Highway 1 in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
The spot where McWay Creek tumbles into the Pacific Ocean is one of the most-visited spots in Big Sur.
Big Sur is a wild and natural 90-mile stretch from Carmel to San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the ocean. It is an appealing place with its own distinctive California flavor: lovely, wild, lonely and rugged. It is also dramatic, enchanting, overwhelming and sublime.
It is a land of incredible resorts, eye-popping sunsets, redwood groves, cobbled beaches, soaring California condors, Spanish missions, tree-lined hollows, lighthouses, huge elephant seals and migrating gray whales.
Its mood changes with the weather and the time of day. Fog may blanket the coast at dawn until the sun burns it away. The setting sun creates a colorful palette. The ocean water at McWay Falls shifts from aquamarine to cobalt to Caribbean blue. Storms add a different mystique.
Big Sur is a place of free spirits and American literary giants: Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lillian Bos Ross, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Weston. It was Jeffers who said: “Big Sur is the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.”
The Spanish called the Big Sur area El Sur Grande, the Big South.
The curvy, two-lane highway runs north-south between San Francisco and Los Angeles and it sits 500 to 1,000 feet above the crashing surf.
It hugs the coast, one of the world’s great scenic highways. It gets 3 million visitors a year and is especially popular with Europeans. The road is surrounded by the 240,026-acre Ventana Wilderness in the canyon-filled Santa Lucia Mountains in Los Padres National Forest.
The highway was not built until 1937. Big Sur didn’t get electricity until the late 1940s. Telephone party lines survived into the 1970s. Cellphone service is spotty, at best.
Big Sur is surprisingly wild with limited accommodations, food and gasoline along 90 miles. There are long stretches with few signs of civilization. But it also has some of the plushest resorts in California: Post Ranch Inn and the Ventana Inn and Spa.
One of the best ways to see Big Sur is to visit three state parks: Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns.
Andrew Molera State Park offers easy hiking trails that reach the ocean. That’s rare along this stretch of coast. The 4,766-acre park is largely undeveloped, by design. Primitive camping is available.
The bubbly Big Sur River flows through the park and empties into the ocean at a remote beach that stretches 3 miles. A 19.5-mile stretch of the stream is a designated wild and scenic river.
The park, a one-time dairy farm where Monterey Jack cheese was born, is the largest state park along Big Sur, 23 miles south of Carmel. It is a great place for Pacific vistas, driftwood-filled beaches, hikes along windswept ocean bluffs and more than 20 miles of trails.
You might even find thousands of monarch butterflies wintering en masse in eucalyptus trees along the Big Sur River.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park features 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls, camping and a park lodge on 1,006 acres. The Big Sur River tumbles through the park. It is also a major trailhead and route to the Ventana Wilderness.
The most impressive redwoods are found in the campground. The giant trees can be 350 feet tall, 20 feet in diameter and more than 2,000 years old.
The parks stretch inland to include the steep, rugged redwood-lined creek canyons, the slopes of oak, the open grasslands and the ridges of chaparral.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns (1868-1928) was an early settler of Big Sur who ran a ranch in McWay Canyon with her husband, John Burns. Her namesake park is 37 miles south of Carmel, and it covers 3,762 acres.
McWay Falls can be viewed from an overlook. It is just a short walk from the parking lot off the highway. The round trip is 0.64 miles. There are views to the north and south, but no public access to the beach. The spring-fed stream flows year-round over California’s only beach waterfall.
The falls used to tumble into the ocean. But that changed in 1983-84 with a fire, landslide and highway reconstruction that created the cove. The falls are named after settler-farmer Christopher McWay from New York state.
The park is also home to the 4.5-mile Ewoldsen Trail, one of the premier Big Sur hiking trails. It features huge redwoods, waterfalls in McWay Canyon and ocean vistas. Parts of the trail are still closed after a major 2008 fire.
The park entry fee is $6.
Two other popular spots along Big Sur are Pfeiffer Beach (the most popular and accessible beach) and Sand Dollar Beach.
Finding the access road to exotic Pfeiffer Beach is tricky. Sycamore Canyon Road is unmarked. It is just south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Look for mile marker 45.64.
It is two miles on a winding, one-lane road and then a 10-minute walk to the beach. Cliffs tower above and an arch-shaped rock sits offshore. It can be windy. It is often on best-beaches lists and appeared in the movie “The Sandpiper” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Sand Dollar Beach features a protected, crescent-shaped beach.
The highway’s much-photographed Bixby Creek Bridge is 700 feet long and 260 feet high.
You will find sand dunes near the Point Sur Lightstation, a state historic park that dates to 1889. It sits 361 feet above the water.
Tours are offered of the station that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Go to pointsur.org.
The Los Padres National Forest’s Ventana Wilderness features more than 320 miles of hiking trails, some with thermal pools. Try the Big Pines Trail for views of Monterey Bay.
The 23-mile Pine Ridge Trail makes a great weekend backpack. The Buckeye and Carrizo trails also are favorites.
The wilderness, established in 1969, covers 240,000 acres.
Los Padres National Forest includes 1,257 miles of trails and 100 wilderness areas that together cover 875,000 acres. The forest was established in 1969 and covers terrain that stretches from 540 feet in elevation to 5,760 feet.
Los Padres National Forest: 805-968-6640, fs.usda.gov/lpnf
Ventana Wilderness: Ventana Wilderness Alliance, 831-423-3191, ventanawild.org
Big Sur Chamber of Commerce: 831-667-2100, bigsurcalifornia.org
California State Parks: 800-777-0369, parks.ca.gov
Andrew Molera State Park: 408-667-2315
Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks: Both can be reached at 831-667-2315.
Big Sur Guides and Hiking: Offers private and group trips, including helicopter tours. 831-594-1742, bigsurguides.com
Monterey: Just north of Carmel, the city has the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau: 877-MONTEREY, seemonterey.com.
Carmel-by-the-Sea: Also know as Carmel, the artsy town has shops, boutiques, galleries and the famous 17-Mile Drive. Carmel Chamber of Commerce: 800-550-4333, 831-624-2522 or carmelcalifornia.com
San Simeon: To the south, this is home to the Hearst Castle, the palace of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. 805-927-2020, hearst-castle.org