Hiking A Magical Waterfall in California

It was the first day of a long journey to come as I finished checking off my last two states out of all fifty in America. Something was telling me I had saved the best for last, however, the weather I’d seen so far on the Pacific Coast Highway had another idea. Within my six hours of driving to this waterfall hike in California, I’d seen the sunrise, then blinding daylight, foggy mist that I’d originally mistook for a wildfire and, lastly, pouring rain.

Bixby Bridge: Scenic Stop while road tripping the Pacific Coast Highway
Bixby Bridge: Scenic Stop on PCH

Arriving At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

I pulled up to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park just as the rain began to back off into a light sprinkle. There was no attendant in the booth to pay the $10 day fee, yet the cars were still lined down the entrance, nearly all of the way back to Highway 1. I figured it was just tourist season repercussions, but then, I spotted a car with its flashers blocking the bridge up front.

“Did he seriously just park here and run to see the waterfall? Tourists,” I scoffed, knowing full well I was just another one in the bunch.

Though I wasn’t, per se, local to this area, I had been living in California for the past two years and that had to be worth something, despite my Wisconsin license plates following me everywhere I’d go.

I watched as people came running off the trail and up the cliffside, hopping into their cars and waiting for the rest of their road trip partners. That’s it, I refused to take part in this fiasco. Spotting the parking lot on the other side of the bridge, I put my left turn signal on and looped around the cars stalling in the gravel. As I approached the river, I saw it: The Self-Pay Machine.

Grab The West Coast Road Trip Itinerary

What Goes Around Comes Around

Bowing my head in shame, I put my right signal back on and pulled up into the gravel with the other flashing losers.

“HOOOONK. HONK. HONK. HOOOOONK,” a truck much larger than necessary came toward me, facing the wrong way in traffic and blaring his horn.

You’d think that having the confidence to honk while going five miles per hour in a monster truck inside of a state park would extend to realizing you had enough space to get through. However, this was not the case. I mimed a scene where I was throwing dollar bills in the air to try and tell him I had to pay first, but he continued. I kept miming money in every way I could think of, until finally sighing and giving him an extra unnecessary two inches. As he crept passed me, the driver’s side window rolled down.

“I have to pay,” I replied, slightly annoyed that he hadn’t understood that by now.

“You,” he said in an accent with a tinge of anger as he pointed his grubby fingers toward me, “Go down and park. Then, you come up here and pay,” he finished, as if it was supposed to be some sort of mind-blowing statement. “Other people have to get through,” he continued, while rolling up his window, still going the wrong way in traffic up the hill.

Making Peace with The Park

I’m not sure why this guy who was clearly road tripping with his family took it upon himself to call me out of the bunch, but I’m assuming it’s one of those cases where bad karma comes back to you instantly, as I was the first one to judge the lineup when I entered the park. I guess I truly am a Californian now, or at least I act like it in traffic. Either way, I took my opportunity to cross the bridge and park below.

I had already driven over five hours this morning alone, waking up before the sun, in order to catch a glimpse of McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Despite the adventure I had in the driveway, I wasn’t about to let it ruin my experience. In fact, maybe I would let it make it. The distance to hike to the overlook was just a bit more than the distance to hike to the self-pay machine and stand in line. I figured it would take about the same amount of time, if you know what I mean. Maybe I was lining myself up for another round of bad karma, but, once I reached the fork in the road, I took a left onto the trailhead.

Beginning The Hike To The Magical Waterfall in California

The gravel path lined the river like a ribbon, bending this way and that through the trees until greeting me with a dark tunnel. It looked as if someone had used a hole punch in the side of the rolling hills to finish the trail. The core was only about 50 feet or so long, but I could not get out of there quick enough, knowing what awaited me on the other side. As I reached the end, the path opened up into a small clearing, stopped only by the wooden fence lining the cliffside.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Magical Waterfall in California
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

I peered down at the sparkling sapphire waves of the Pacific Ocean. The cliff I stood above on circled to the left, curving into a crescent moon above the beach. The waves met the sand in a way that made them feel like longtime friends- they were one. However, no sight was more spectacular than the McWay Falls.

The pure droplets slid down the cliff side, coming together into a graceful jet stream that dissipated on the sandy shore. Time to time, the waterfall would join forces with the waves, making it look as if someone had left the sink water running too long, spilling the Pacific Ocean onto the map. I decided, right then and there, that this, McWay Falls, was the most magical waterfall in California. Although, I had to admit that it was still my first day of road-tripping up the Pacific Coast Highway and who knows, maybe the most magical waterfall in California was yet to come…

Hike to a magical waterfall in California: McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
McWay Falls

What To Know Before You GO To this Waterfall in California:

  • There is a $10 day use fee. Use self-pay machine if there’s no ranger in the station.
  • Parking is right in front of the trail head and there was plenty of space within the lot.
  • The Waterfall Overlook Trail is a 1.2 mile loop and takes an average of 32 minutes to complete (although you can complete this much faster and just turn around once reaching the McWay Falls if desired).
  • The short hike itself is on an easy, gravel-path with little no elevation involved and is great for any skill level.

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