The State Parks of Big Sur: A User's Guide

WHAT A VIEW: The view of McWay waterfall at Big Sur is gorgeous and easy to get to. Robert Stolting/Shutterstock

The pioneers of the breathtaking Big Sur area of central California included the Pfeiffer family, and two spectacular state parks south of Carmel carry on the name today. You might pull into one looking for the other, but it would be a delightful mistake. And the two parks are close enough that you can explore them both.


John Pfeiffer lived on the property that would become Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, moving into a cabin among the redwoods in 1884. He turned down $210,000 — a princely sum in 1930 — from a Los Angeles developer and instead sold 700 acres to the state of California in 1933.

The parcel 12 miles south was owned by Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown. The couple befriended Julia Pfeiffer Burns — who ran a ranch there with her husband, John Burns — and in 1962 gave the ranch to the state for use as a state park dedicated to her memory.

Things to do

Most visitors to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park come simply to gawk. McWay Creek tumbles west out of the Santa Lucia Range and drops dramatically into the Pacific Ocean. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot and picnic area on the east side of Highway 1 to the observation deck that provides a view of an 80-foot waterfall where McWay Creek drops from granite cliffs into the sea.

The Overlook Trail is a good spot to watch for gray whales migrating from feeding grounds in Alaska to breeding and calving grounds off the Baja California coast. The whales are southbound in December and January and northbound in March and April.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park offers its own waterfall. It’s a three-mile roundtrip hike to the base of Pfeiffer Falls. While not as dramatic as the fall down the road, the hike to Pfeiffer Falls takes you through redwood groves. Want more water? There is swimming and boulder sunbathing in the Big Sur River.

Why you’ll want to come back

There are just two walk-in campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You’ll have to make reservations months in advance to spend a day (and night) soaking in the dramatic ocean views.

Flora and fauna

Redwoods are the gee-whiz trees at both Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. And you’ll also find coastal prairie grasslands at both parks, as well as oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows.

The upland wildlife includes black-tail deer, gray squirrels, raccoons and skunks. Lucky visitors to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park may spot sea otters, harbor seals (at right) and California sea lions in the cove below the overlook.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is also a good place to spot sea birds including the double-crested cormorant and California brown pelican.

By the numbers:

  • Website: California State Parks
  • Funky fact: Big Sur Lodge, with 61 rooms and a restaurant, is located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.