The trail to McWay Falls, an iconic waterfall viewed by tens of thousands of visitors each month in Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is getting revamped.

Photo of McWay Falls taken by W Tipton

California State Parks officials recently announced they have undertaken a resource protection project at the park in an effort to improve public safety and protection of the natural and cultural resources surrounding the popular waterfall. Increased visitation to the park has resulted in erosion along Highway 1 as visitors seek access to the Waterfall Overlook Trail. Traffic and stormwater runoff has also destabilized about 500 feet of coastal bluff above the falls on the west side of the highway. 

Jeff Frey, environmental scientist for California State Parks, Monterey District, said that because of the increase in usage of the park and unauthorized access and damage to its sensitive natural and cultural resources, new fencing and new signage is being installed. Both will guide visitors to the safest parking locations from which the Waterfall Overlook Trail can be accessed. About a half mile of the trail is also being rehabilitated by de-compacting the soil and planting native vegetation in order to return the area to its natural state. A home that was there in the late 1930s to the 1960s brought with it non-native trees and vegetation to the area.

“In the past, the whole area was coastal shrub vegetation,” said Frey, about that kind of vegetation that is lower growing and closer to the ocean and is trying to be restored there. “In addition to that, when fires come through areas, a lot of times the non-native vegetation that was being suppressed by native vegetation is able to gain a foothold.”

The project, which officially began in early November, is expected to be completed by March.

The McWay Falls resource protection project is one of a number of ongoing efforts to repair damage in Big Sur caused by fire, rain and increased visitation. A Park’s trail team has been working to repair and re-open the extensive trail system on the east side of Highway 1. Additionally, the parking lot at the main entrance of the park is slated for realignment, which will improve the accessibility of the restroom and picnic areas.

“Several parks in Big Sur that have been damaged by the last two major fires – the Basin and the Soberanes – and because of those, a lot of our trail systems have been damaged. said Fry. “In some cases it’s the trails and in other cases it’s the structures on the trails like stairwells and retaining walls.”

He also noted that for the last 10 years park officials have had problems with an increasing number of visitors accessing an off-limits beach in the park by way of steep cliffs. They’re now taking measures to prevent that.

“In the process, they’ve increased coastal erosion, caused vegetation damage and have endangered themselves and caused expensive and time-consuming rescues,” said Frey. “So for all those reasons we’re trying to decrease the number of visitors that try to gain access to this beach below the falls.”

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located on Highway 1 approximately 40 miles south of Monterey. It encompasses more than 2,000 acres of land ranging from the Big Sur coastline to the nearby ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Donated to the California State Park system in 1962, the park was named after a respected pioneer woman of the Big Sur country.


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