Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur has a word famous waterfall named McWay Falls, which tumbles off a coastal bluff straight into the Pacific Ocean in a display of unique natural beauty. The park has a second waterfall too, just inland from McWay Falls, with the more generic name of Canyon Falls. This lovely little waterfall can’t rival McWay for postcard beauty, but the 0.9-mile round trip hike to the waterfall is quite pleasant, passing through an enchanting grove of ancient redwoods.
Start from the top of the first parking area inside Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park where Canyon Trail descends immediately into a grove of redwoods. Keep an eye on the trail below you, where slices of redwood trunks are embedded into the trail like oversized stepping stones. If you have time to count the rings, you’ll see that the redwoods had quite a long life before they ended up underfoot. After just less than a tenth of a mile, Canyon Trail passes through a picnic area where a few picnic tables and grills are spread out along McWay Creek. This is a lovely place to stop for a meal before or after you hike.
Continue up the trail, which runs along the north side of McWay Creek. If you look to your left, you’ll spot the ruins of an old cabin. Tall ancient redwoods line the canyon bottom, casting grand shadows across the trail. The patches of sunlight that reach the forest floor illuminate a verdant collection of ferns, redwood sorrel, and pacific starflower.
At 0.15 miles from the start, take the footbridge to the right to the other side of the stream. In another tenth of a mile, you will come to a trail junction, the only junction on this hike. Ewoldsen Trail breaks off to the right, venturing farther up the canyon (as of May 2014, part of this trail is closed due to wildfire damage). Stay to the left to continue toward Canyon Falls.
Canyon Trail rises just above the south side of the stream and ventures up the canyon through more redwoods. As the waterfall comes into view, hop back to the north side of McWay Creek and proceed up to the base of Canyon Falls where a white band pours through a chute in a granite wall. The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park website measures Canyon Falls at sixty feet tall, but the three-tier website doesn’t look to be more than thirty feet from top to bottom. A tall redwood tree stands to the right of the waterfall and the roots cling to the rock wall like wooden toes. Green moss coats the rock behind the waterfall and there are maidenhair ferns running down the rock wall just a few feet from the waterfall. It’s a charming little waterfall.
An unofficial footpath seems to continue above the waterfall, but it is probably best to turn around here. It is 0.45 miles back to the trailhead, descending 225 feet. Dogs and bikes are not allowed on this trail. There is a $10 vehicle fee to enter Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. Alternatively, you may park for free along Highway One and walk a short distance into the park. No permit is required to hike Canyon Trail to Canyon Falls, so get out and enjoy!
Trail status: Severe storm damage to the park’s entrance station and restrooms in March of 2019 caused Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to close until further notice. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is closed! Visit the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park website for additional information about the park and trail closure.
To get to the trailhead: From Ragged Point, drive 37.2 miles north on Highway One to the well marked Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (60 miles north of Cambria). The park is 8.1 miles south of Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur. Park beneath the sycamores alongside Highway One, or pull into the park to reach the proper trailhead. Drive down the park road and make the first left into the parking area (before the road curves to the right over a bridge across McWay Creek). Canyon Trail starts from the top of the parking area.
Trailhead address: Highway 1, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA 93920
Trailhead coordinates: 36.16014, -121.668523 (36° 09′ 36.50″N 121° 40′ 06.68″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Central Coast trails and campgrounds.
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