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McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

This Article Features Photo Zoom
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McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along California’s spectacular Big Sur coast. The breathtaking waterfall drops 80 feet from a tree-lined cliff onto the white-sand beach, or in the case of high tide, into the ocean. California sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters can sometimes be seen in the cove, as well as numerous seabirds and shorebirds. During the whale migration in the winter and spring months, gray whales also may be seen.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located 37 miles south of Carmel along famous U.S. Highway 1, designated by the U.S. Department of Tourism as an American National Scenic Byway and California Scenic Highway. There’s parking in the state park, plus an easy, wheelchair-accessible, quarter-mile hike to reach the overlook. There’s no access to the beach due to treacherous cliffs, but the views of the cove and the waterfall from the overlook are the best for photography. There are other trails in the park that will take you through beautiful redwood trees and open vistas of the rugged coast.

The weather on the Big Sur coast can change rapidly, so bring layers of clothes and a rain shell to prepare for any conditions—general weather reports may not be accurate as the rugged topographical nature of this coastal region creates many microclimates. Big Sur typically enjoys a mild year-round climate, with more than 70 percent of the 40-plus inches of rain falling between December and March. Summers are typically warm and dry. It’s common to have foggy days in the summer, sometimes moving out to sea in the late afternoon, at other times blanketing the coast all day.

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Photo Experience
Since the hike to the waterfall is an easy walk, I like to carry my entire arsenal of equipment in my photo backpack. McWay Falls offers outstanding wide-angle view possibilities because of the especially scenic setting of the waterfall, cove, trees and colorful sunsets. I carry a Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L lens for such purposes. A wide-angle perspective also is best to showcase the turquoise color of the bay in contrast with the bluer waters beyond. I find the Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L handy for closer, more intimate images of the waterfall and cove. I almost always have a black-and-white circular polarizer attached, which brings out the colors in the water and is helpful for shooting longer exposures. The longer exposures with water splashing on the rocks on the far side, as well as a large rock in the middle, make for interesting images. Lastly, I carry a Canon EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L in case I see otters or seals.

Best Times
Excellent photo opportunities can be found all year. The waterfall flow remains fairly constant throughout as it’s fed by underground springs from McWay Creek. Spring and early summer are the best times to view the various wildflowers that grow along the edge of the cliffs. The waterfall faces westerly, so the evening is the best time to find soft, warm light hitting the falls from the setting sun. Foggy days can diffuse the light and provide soft lighting even midday. Contact: California State Parks, (831) 667-2315,

Essential Gear…
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Graduated neutral-density filters provide optimum exposures of a scene by reducing light when conditions are uneven. The Hoya NDx4 filter is an ideal ND grad filter for seascapes—one half of the filter is clear, with no light loss, while the other half offers a two-stop reduction in light. The soft transition and a rotating mount provide perfect placement for darkening bright skies or adding motion blur to moving water. Price varies by filter size. Contact: Hoya (THK Photo Products), (800) 421-1141,