Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Beautiful Big Sur


California Waterfalls
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

I have to preface this entire article with a small, yet important, disclaimer: I grew up spending summers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Kevin’s childhood home was roughly twenty minutes away from Washington State’s famous Snoqualmie Falls.  Ten months before our visit to the popular Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along California’s Golden Coast, the two of us marveled at multi-story waterfalls in Iceland and Western Norway.  We are no newbies to checking out waterfalls while on the road.

California’s devastating drought has been five years in the making, so I’m not sure exactly what I expected when we pulled up outside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  Despite the park’s somewhat hard-to-reach location – Julia Pfeiffer Burns is over an hour away from both Carmel-By-The-Sea and San Simeon – parking spots were few and far between on an arbitrary Saturday in mid-February.

“I knew this place was popular, but man,” I sighed as we struggled to squeeze into a spot on the street, well outside the park’s boundaries.

“People who visit during the summer must, at some point, just not be able to stop here,” Kevin pointed out as we surveyed the crowd.  We watched as discouraged and frustrated visitors attempted to enter the parking lot, only to be turned away and told to park on the street.

Surprisingly, Kevin and I still had to pay the park’s $10 parking/entrance fee, even though our car was about a five minute’s walk from the entrance.  Thankfully, the pass covered all entrance fees for California State Parks for the whole day, meaning that we wouldn’t have to shell out additional dough to enjoy Point Lobos later that afternoon.  Planning ahead can help lower the costs of visiting Big Sur, but even so, we found the entrance fee completely worthwhile as soon as we laid our eyes on bright and unexpected turquoise water.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CaliforniaJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

We all have some preconceptions about Big Sur and California’s coastline.  Rocky cliffs, endless panoramas of the Pacific ocean, rolling mountains, and white-capped waves a rough surf.  Before I visited Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I thought bright, turquoise waters were reserved for the Caribbean Sea.  Alas, these tropical-esque images were taken just a few hours south of the Bay Area, and I know I wouldn’t believe it either had I not seen it with my own green eyes.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CaliforniaJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CaliforniaJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CaliforniaJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

The park’s iconic waterfall, McWay Falls, isn’t all that large and is easily overshadowed by the beauty of the rest of the park, which we barely had the time to scratch the surface of.  Trails abound for those who want to dedicate the whole day to getting lost in the wilderness, while camping overnight is also an option for those who book ahead.  Most come for a glimpse of the easily accessible McWay Falls, an Instagram staple and a hallmark of the entire Big Sur coastline.

As Kevin and I leaned over the railing to admire the falls and fresh ocean air, a little boy of about five or six started talking to me, and his childlike insights, along with those articulated by a dramatic tourist moments later, perfectly capture my feelings towards McWay Falls:

“It’s small, huh?” he said, looking up at his dad but quickly peeking shyly at me.

I nodded, smiling down at him.

“It looks like the rock is peeing!” the boy continued, louder and more enthusiastically now that he knew he had a captive audience.  Kevin and I burst out laughing, and even the kid’s father, turning red from embarrassment, let loose a few chuckles.

A few minutes later, as Kevin and I started making our way back to the car, we were stopped by a man with a thick European accent.  “Is this what I came all the way to see?” he gestured wildly.  “I kid.  It’s beautiful.  Very tiny, but very pretty here.”

So, there you have it: a small waterfall, apparently reminiscent of a stream of urine, surrounded by one of the most spectacularly gorgeous scenes I’ve ever seen.  I’m not going to lie, I added Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to our California coast itinerary because I couldn’t seem to escape McWay Falls on my nightly Instagram wanderlust-fueled drool-fests and I yearned to see what the fuss was about.

Don’t get me wrong, McWay Falls is lovely and photogenic, but I think Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has infinitely more to offer.  Even if travelers just hike the ten minutes it takes to get from the main parking lot to the viewing platform for the falls, they will enjoy the opportunity to view gorgeous ocean vistas.  The best part?  Both Kevin and I were able to enjoy it; as our driver, he couldn’t peel his eyes from the road for long, meaning he missed out on much of Route 1’s stunning views.  Here, visitors are encouraged to put the car in park, stroll casually under bright West Coast sunshine, and enjoy the Big Sur moment.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

I can’t publish this article without including yet another humorous (although Kevin, I’m sure, would prefer to use a different adjective) anecdote from our visit to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  As we stood in front of McWay Falls, we both agreed we’d found a perfect place to snap the obligatory selfie we typically send to our parents.  Since Kevin’s arms are much longer than my own, he typically takes the photo while I complain about how the rotated camera makes my face look.

Anyways, Kevin spent a minute or two working to strike an agreeable balance between finding a flattering angle of our faces that included the falls without whacking a fellow traveler in the face.  Somewhere, in the midst of this classically millennial struggle, Kevin’s grip on his phone loosened and the phone fell to the ground like a rock.  Face-down, of course.  Predictably, when he went to pick it up, the screen was cracked in the upper-left corner.

And, for the past six months or so since this happened, strangers and family members alike have asked what happened to his phone.  Alas, I now have some place to send all the inquiring folks, as we’ve both just about exhausted all interesting and innovative ways to tell this story.

Naturally, I don’t quite like the way the selfie came out.  On the other hand, I don’t terribly mind the way this shot Kevin took came out – although I can’t recall if it was taken pre- or post- screen crack.

Kate Ericson, McWay Falls

I honestly crave the opportunity to return to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to explore the countless paths and trails that branch out into the park’s dense forest.  Sadly, we simply didn’t have the time or energy (guys, I cannot emphasize enough how few food options there are along Route 1) but all the more reason to return, in my humble view.

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