A coastal path, part of the Partington Cove Trail in Julia Pfeiffer State Park.

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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Top choice in Big Sur

If you're chasing waterfalls, swing into this state park named for the daughter of some of the earliest European settlers to arrive in Big Sur. The Pfeiffer family hailed from France originally, but arrived here in the 1880s. By the 1930s, Big Sur had attracted the attention of developers, who approached the Pfeiffer descendants about purchasing their land, but in the interest of preserving it, they sold to the state of California instead. Today, numerous destinations in Big Sur are named for the family, including Pfeiffer Beach and this state park.

McWay Falls is the classic Big Sur postcard shot, with tree-topped rocks jutting above a golden beach next to swirling blue pools and crashing white surf. From trailside benches, you might spot migrating whales during winter.

From the parking lot, the 1.3-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail rushes downhill toward the ocean, offering photogenic views of the 80ft-high McWay Falls, which tumbles year-round over granite cliffs and free-falls into the sea. Note there is no trail access to the beach and it is strictly forbidden to explore the cliff areas beyond the fenced boundaries.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California (wide angle)
A wide angle view of McWay Falls in late afternoon in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, in the Big Sur area of Central California. ©PictureLake/Getty Images

Two small walk-in campsites sit up on a semi-shaded ocean bluff, with fire pits and vault toilets but no water. All campers must check in first at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, 11 miles north.

Visitors often wander into businesses along Hwy 1 and ask, ‘How much further to Big Sur?’ In fact, there is no town of Big Sur as such, though you may see the name on maps. Commercial activity is concentrated along the stretch north of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Sometimes called ‘the Village,’ this is where you’ll find most of the lodgings, restaurants and shops.

The park entrance is on the east side of Hwy 1, about 8 miles south of Nepenthe restaurant.  At Big Sur's state parks, your parking fee ($10) receipt is valid for same-day entry to all except Limekiln. Note that most parks can't accept electronic payments or credit cards and you'll need to pay with cash. Please don’t skip paying the entry fee by parking illegally outside the parks along Hwy 1 – California's state parks have suffered severe budget cutbacks, and every dollar helps.

Take a magical road trip on California's Highway 1