McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is Big Sur’s best-known landmark. There aren’t too many places in the world where waterfalls pour onto pristine beaches, and McWay Falls is both unusually beautiful and easily accessible. The paved trail is nearly level – a half-mile walk that anyone can enjoy.
If you make the trip to McWay Falls and feel like some more exploring, or if you’ve been there before and you are looking for a new Big Sur adventure, I heartily recommend the short but exciting Partington Cove Trail.
In just over half a mile, the trail descends an old dirt road to visit two small coves. The coves are picturesque, but what makes this trail really fun is the historic tunnel that connects them.
The wild, steep coast of Big Sur discouraged the first Spanish settlers of Monterey Bay from moving southward. Until the completion of Highway 1 in the 1930s, settlers were few and far between. Electricity and telephone service didn’t arrive in some areas until the 1950s. Before construction of the highway, there were only two options for connection with the outside world: rough wagon trails or boats. Docks or piers, sometimes equipped with cable hoists, were necessary for boats and ships because the rugged coastline didn’t have natural harbors.
The tunnel at Partington Cove was constructed to provide access to one of these docks. Although the dock is gone, the old road and the tunnel provide an interesting walk. The trail starts along Highway 1 about 2 miles north of the parking area for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There isn’t a large sign, so you have to watch carefully for it. Watch for a bend in the road where it crosses Partington Creek. It’s just inside the northern boundary of the state park and about 10½ miles south of the community center of Big Sur. The trail starts at a gated dirt road on the ocean side of the road. There are a few parking spaces on both sides of the road, and parking is free.
Walk down the old dirt road down toward the ocean. In about 10 minutes, you’ll reach a split in the trail. The right branch goes down to a small, rocky cove. The left branch crosses Partington Creek and passes through a rocky promontory via the tunnel. On the other side, it continues down to the water. You can see a few iron bolts and eyes that once anchored the dock, but the main attraction is the cove itself and the views south along the Big Sur Coast.
It is possible to scramble out on some of the rocks beyond the end of the trail, but be extremely careful if you do. Unusually strong waves have unexpectedly washed people out to sea along this rugged stretch of coast, and tides can vary dramatically. Be especially careful with children in this beautiful but dangerous landscape. As with almost all coastal trails, poison oak is common. Watch for it along the sides of the Partington Cove Trail.
Hiking back up takes longer than hiking down, but it’s not all that hard. If you want more adventure, cross the highway and follow the Tan Bark Trail, or sometimes called Tan Oak Trail, along Partington Creek. It’s a pretty redwood-lined hike. For more information about McWay Falls, Partington Cove or any of the other trails in the park, go to www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578 or call 831-667-2315.
The park offers two beautiful campsites with views of the coast – the only problem is that with such a limited number of sites, they get booked up almost as soon as they become available. Like all state park campsites, a new month of reservations becomes available on the first of each new month, six months in advance. July reservations will become available Jan. 1. The larger campgrounds to the north at Pfeiffer State Park and to the south at Limekiln State Park and Kirk Creek are much easier to reserve. There are also private campgrounds and lodging located around the community of Big Sur. For useful information about the Big Sur area, including lodging and food, go to www.bigsurcalifornia.org.
If you visit McWay Falls, I strongly recommend parking in the official lot on the left side of the highway. There are some narrow spaces along the highway that aren’t subject to the $10 parking fee, but they are dangerously close to the busy highway. Park in the official lot, support our state parks with your $10, and there’s a really nice picnic area under the redwoods that you can enjoy before or after your hike.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent. He is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.