Updated May 28, 2016 (117 total falls)
When I was in first grade my family moved to a new house next to a greenbelt with a lush canyon and “The Creek” at the bottom. This perennial stream (Ebright Creek) with a small salmon run was the source of my first adventures in creeks and I loved it! I’ve always enjoyed the flow of water, particularly in the form of waterfalls, but I took a hiatus from exploring creeks for over a decade. I recently rediscovered this joy in the rugged canyons of Big Sur.
My fascination with Big Sur waterfalls has evolved into a project to discover, document and catalog as many waterfalls in Big Sur, the Ventana Wilderness and Silver Peak Wilderness as I can. By my estimates there are well over one hundred falls so it’s going to take awhile and this is only taking into account falls that I’ve subjectively determined to be worthy (there are dozens, if not hundreds, of truly ephemeral falls that only appear immediately after heavy rain which I generally exclude). This page includes a description and photos from nearly one hundred waterfalls I’ve already visited with much more yet to explore in some of the most remote and rugged corners of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains. Part I catalogs the first 50+ waterfalls and Part II on a separate page catalogs the next 50 waterfalls. There’s no particular order although some of my favorite falls are located towards the top of the list on this page. I don’t have a single favorite fall or even a handful of favorites; each fall has its own unique qualities and my “favorites” list is about three dozen falls and growing!
The waterfalls range from cataracts deep in the most remote and wild corners of the wilderness to the easily accessible falls near the highway. The Big Sur region has incredible topographical relief from the summits of the Santa Lucia Mountains down to the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean so it should come as no surprise that the rugged canyons draining the peaks hold many amazing waterfalls. In fact, almost every major stream and drainage contains a waterfall. The list of falls range from delicate 15 ft falls to towering 200 ft falls. The setting of the falls is equally varied including coastal falls off bluffs onto the sand, lush redwood-filled canyons, rocky slopes with Santa Lucia Firs and ephemeral falls in the drier chaparral zones. Other intricacies include varying degrees and type of mineral calcification and the depth and size of plunge pools.
This list includes photos of each falls I have visited along with a short description. I’ve also included video footage where available as I’ve come to discover that video is a particular great medium to capture the movement of water. While this is a fairly comprehensive catalog of the major waterfalls in the Big Sur region, including the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness, there is a growing list of falls yet to visit. This post will be updated as additional waterfalls are visited and/or discovered. It should be noted that many falls require substantial rainfall for optimal viewing which may not happen until winter rains. It should also be noted that the lands of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains are a patchwork of private and public lands. If I haven’t described the location of a falls, it’s for a reason – please respect private lands and the desire the keep the mystery of wild places.
FKS = First Known Sighting; * = origin of name by author
- Inspiration Falls* (160-180 ft est.): Inspiration Falls is a tremendous waterfall located in a remote region of the Ventana Wilderness at the head wall of a twisty, rugged canyon. The upper ~40% of the falls is visible from afar so there have been many sightings, but Brian Robinson and the author were possibly the first known adventurers to reach the base of the falls which is a completely different experience. The cliff cirque around the falls is massive and gazing up at the tall falls from below is an amazing experience. It’s a truly special falls.
- Last Chance Falls (120 ft): When in flow, Last Chance Falls is one of the most dramatic waterfall in the Ventana Wilderness. The falls flow over an overhanging precipice in an impressive free fall with a large cavern behind the falls. A natural amphitheater of cliffs surrounds the falls and the setting surrounding the falls is fit for a scene out of Jurassic Park. The ephemeral nature of Last Chance Falls makes it particularly special and requires planning, or more accurately, waiting for the ideal conditions which occur during a small window after heavy rains.
- Discovery Falls * (90+ ft)(FKS): A gem hidden deep in one of the steepest canyons in Big Sur, this nearly vertical falls flows over an immense wall. I named the falls “Discovery” since this is a major falls for the Santa Lucia Mountains but so carefully hidden by nature. The falls contains heavy mineral accumulation characteristic of waterfalls in the region.
- Thunder Falls * (70 ft): Thunder Falls begins its plunge over a smooth 20 ft vertical luge before leaping off the cliffs for 50 ft of free fall into an immense cirque with vertical cliffs. In high flow, the projection of the water up and out over cliff edge is remarkable. This north facing falls is nestled in a particularly shady and lush redwood grove including some ancient old growth trees. This falls was named as such because of the acoustics of the cirque in high flow are indeed thunderous.
- Canogas Falls (80 ft total): Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes multiple steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between each step. The falls is nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest at the base of the falls making it a magical setting.
- Devils Falls * (80-90 ft est)(FKS): I identified Devils Falls by satellite and topography with essentially no information about the drainage prior to my visit. Much to my excitement, Devis Falls turned out to be one of the great gems of the Ventana. The falls contains two primary steps with spectacular turquoise pools in between. The upper segment is a few feet taller than the lower segment. Just above the main waterfall step is a lead-in falls of about 20 ft with another turquoise pool (not included in the height). Perhaps most amazing about Devils Falls is its spectacular setting tucked into an incredibly rugged cirque of vertical cliffs culminating in a spectacular rock feature I dubbed “Devils Dome,” which similar to Half Dome in Yosemite, has a precipitous NW face (aka Ventana’
- Ventana Falls * (50+ ft est.): One of the most remote falls in all of the Ventana and Big Sur, this stunning falls is not easy to reach as it entails several miles of creek walking in beautiful Ventana Creek. The rock facade surrounding the falls is especially striking with full palette of colors from white to reddish to gray rock. The creek walk to reach the falls entails numerous log jams, gorges, clear blue pools, and cascades. Ventana Falls guards access to the terrain upstream which is arguably the most rugged, wild and awe-inspiring in any coastal area of the contiguous United States. Bypassing the falls is not trivial and entails a scramble on loose rock. (New photos and video coming soon)
- Hellhole Falls * (40 ft est): Hellhole Falls tumbles from a V-shaped notch into a chasm and ultimately into a large turquoise pool. Together with Canogas Falls and a half dozen other smaller falls within a relatively short distance, this is arguably the most rugged and impressive stretch of canyon in all of Big Sur. The lead up to Hellhole Falls is just as striking as the falls itself with a number of cascades and waterfalls over smooth bedrock. Behind the falls is a distinguished spire-like Santa Lucia Fir epitomizing the Ventana. I dubbed the falls “Hellhole” since it fits with the naming of the canyon and also because of the impasse that this falls presents to the adventurer to continuing upstream. However, the falls is not a true impasse since a very steep and loose gully downstream of the falls can be used to gain the cliffs where a bushwhacking traverse leads back to the creek upstream of the falls. Video of Hellhole Falls is in the last minute of the Devils Falls video above.
- Sugar Falls * (40 ft) (FKS): Sugar Falls was a splendid discovery. The falls has an extremely lush setting of hanging green vegetation and a deep turquoise pool that is magical. There is heavy mineral accumulation on everything submerged in water and especially on the face of the waterfall. This thick mineral accumulation provides the basis for vegetation to grow next to the falls, channels the watercourse and creates the spectacular turquoise color in the plunge pool. We named the falls “Sugar Falls” since this is the only falls I know of in the Big Sur/Ventana region near a grove of Sugar Pines and the water appears like falling sugar as it passes through the mineral-encrusted channel.
- Devils Pool * (35 ft): The most remarkable aspect of this falls is not the falls itself (which is very pretty too), but the expansive and deep plunge pool, which is likely the greatest of its kind in Big Sur, hence I named the feature “Devils Pool.” The pool takes on a bright turquoise with sunlight and changes to emerald in the shade. This is also due to thick calcification of minerals on all surfaces in which the water passes. This process is unlike anywhere else I have seen in Big Sur. Due to the large size and depth of Devils Pool, the colors are enhanced making the setting especially magical.
- Chasm Falls * (50 ft): Deep in one of the most rugged canyons in Big Sur lies a falls that slices through the cliffs and free falls into a chasm with a large and deep pool.
- Atlantis Falls * (45 ft est.): A pretty falls dropping in a large and deep pool.
- Wonderland Falls * (40 ft est.): This beautiful falls plunges from a tributary into the Big Sur River. What makes this falls so special is it’s setting in a towering gorge lined with moss and ferns.
- Aerial Falls * (100+ ft): Named because the view of this falls from the summit of Cone Peak is like a birds-eye aerial view. For most of the year this falls is “invisible” from Cone Peak’s lofty perch, but after heavy winter rains whitewater water plunges off a massive conglomerate rock facade and is unmistakable from the summit when looking towards Junipero Serra Peak (aka Santa Lucia and Pimkolam) in the afternoon. While the falls has likely been noticed by many from Cone Peak, the author made the first known approach to the base of hte falls.
- Cinnamon Falls * (200 ft est.)(FKS): A multi-step falls that is one of the tallest on a main stem creek in the entire Big Sur region. The falls includes two main segments and a couple smaller sections totaling 200 ft (a conservative estimate based on my watch altimeter). The rocks surrounding the falls are reddish brown, hence I called the falls Cinnamon Falls. Perhaps the best view of Cinnamon Falls is along the spine of a rocky sub-ridge where you can get a good overview of the falls and see most of it at once. This overview spot is located just below the bottom of a grassy ridge, which can be accessed from the Buckeye Trail. From the base of the falls it is impossible to see the entire cataract and reaching it is more difficult as one must descent the very steep and sometimes loose sub-ridge. Additional smaller falls are located above and below the main cataract. Cinnamon Falls is particularly impressive after winter rains.
- Challenger Falls * (100+ ft) (FKS): It’s possible no human has bothered to visit this stunning 100+ ft waterfall. That’s because it’s a challenge to reach and see it in flow! Most of the complexity lies in the fact that it’s a somewhat ephemeral falls requiring correct timing in the weeks after winter rains, but one must wade in a main stem creek before reaching the small tributary that leads to the falls. Too much flow in the main creek and it’s impassable; too little flow and the creek walking is easy but Challenger Falls is nothing more than a drip. The challenge lies in timing the visit so the creek walk is passable but there is still flow in the lovely cataract.
- Manning Falls (110 ft): When in flow Manning Falls is one of the great waterfalls of Big Sur. The falls launches off a vertical wall with a 100+ ft free fall making it one of the tallest totally air free falls in Big Sur. For clarity, a total air free fall is when the water is entirely in the air without making contact with rock. The cirque in which the falls plunges is fantastically rugged with a broad cliff and a rock spire opposite the falls. Downstream of the falls is a narrow slot canyon with a series of small falls and pools that merits attention as well.
- Puma Falls * (120 ft) (FKS): What makes Puma Falls special is the bottom 70 ft of the falls literally leaps off the cliffs with the water taking an arc trajectory to the plunge pool below. The falls drains a relatively small and narrow drainage so it likely goes dry in late summer and is best viewed after winter rains.
- Jewel Falls (85 ft aggregate; 55 ft main drop): This falls has a majestic setting amid reddish cliffs and sits at the head of a rugged canyon. One can stand beneath the falls and gaze down the canyon to the Pacific Ocean.
- Talon Falls * (65 ft): A beautiful drop nestled in a Santa Lucia Fir grove.
- Enchanted Falls * (60 ft total)(FKS): Located deep in a remote canyon, Enchanted Falls includes two large pools and two waterfall segments. What stands out most about this falls is the incredible lushness of the surrounding cirque with an abundance of moss and ferns clinging to the cliffs. The upper segment is ~45 feet and the lower segment ~15 ft. The approach to this falls entails substantial off-trail travel among thick poison oak thickets.
- Gnome Falls * (15 ft est.): Large pool and pretty falls.
- Leprechaun Falls * (20 ft est.): Large pool and pretty falls.
- Eagle Creek Falls (50 ft est.): A beautiful falls near the Arroyo Seco River.
- Spire Falls (55 ft over two segments): A spectacular setting with a blue plunge pool and smooth rock face.
- Triumph Falls (70 ft):
- Valhalla Falls * (60 ft): This tall falls drops into a nearly narrow slot gorge with vertical walls.
- Cloud Nine Falls and Pool * (50 ft total)(FKS): A series of cascades culminates in a 20 ft drop into a deep turquoise pool surrounded by ferns and moss. The name given by the author is fitting for this spectacularly beautiful spot.
- Vicente Falls (190 ft): Located upstream of Vicente Flat, this extremely tall falls is also fairly ephemeral. In order to best realize the potential of the falls, it’s best to visit after winter or spring rains. By end of the summer the falls slows to a trickle. However, when viewed “in flow” Vicente Falls is wonderful with it’s multiple steps over the cliff face. There are at least three steps totaling 190 ft, but the primary bottom segment is likely close to 100 ft.
- Terrace Falls (200+ ft & 50 ft lower falls): A 200 ft cateract over a mineral encrusted wall with moss and ferns. Below the main falls is another falls, a picturesque 50 footer with several channels and weeping moss. Prior to my visit I could find no photos taken from below the falls and no documentation on the size or nature of this falls (except that a tall falls existed). Thus, it was exciting to find this prolific falls. One of the most impressive features of Terrace Falls is its colossal mineral apron. It seems light flow or drip is ideal for efficient mineral accumulation. In “higher” flow Terrace Falls expands out of its main watercourse with offshoots heading down the breadth of the mineral face. I saw “higher” flow because the Terrace Creek never really achieves huge water volume due to the small drainage size and the result is light flow or drip across the entire expanse of the mineral face. This explains why mineral accumulation is so prolific here. Since little of the nearly vertical face is exposed bedrock, I expect the entire face to be a garden of ferns and moss growing from the mineral accumulation in the spring.
- Pegasus Falls * (several 30-50 ft falls): Located within an extremely rugged canyon, Pegasus Falls consists of at least a half dozen separate falls ranging from 15 ft to 50+ ft in height with at least a few pools in between.
- Cylinder Gorge Falls (20 ft): This falls drops into a sculpted gorge with a cavernous pool.
- Couloir Falls * (60 ft aggreagte)(FKS): Located in one of the most remote corners of the Ventana this falls includes three steps that are almost impossible to see all at once as the watercourse curves around a rock spire.
- Upper Devils Falls * (25 ft)(FKS):
- Upper Thunder Falls * (55 ft)(FKS): Located a mile or so above Thunder Falls, this picturesque falls includes two steps, the upper step at around 15 ft and the lower step at 40 ft. The smooth bedrock surrounding the falls adds to the beauty. See above for video footage.
- Rattlesnake Falls (10 ft to 40 ft): A series of six waterfalls in a rugged gorge, each in a lush setting with moss, ferns and relatively deep plunge pools. Falls #3 has the tallest single drop at 35 ft as it thunders into a cirque with overhanging cliffs lined with five finger ferns. Falls #4 is a picturesque stair-step falls including three segments separated by three pools, which in the aggregate add up to 40+ ft. All six falls are pictured below. Photo album here.
- Celestial Pools * (100 ft aggregate): A series of 20-30 ft falls over polished bedrock separated by deep, cavernous pools. The entire falls cannot be seen from one particular location.
- Emerald Pool * (10 ft): A large pool with a distinctly emerald color and a small two step falls make for a magical setting.
- Coho Falls (35 ft):
- Luna Falls * (60+ ft): A picturesque falls in a lush setting.
- Danish Falls (15 ft): What this falls lacks in height it makes up in beauty with an attractive large circular pool surrounded by nearly vertical cliffs. The setting is extremely lush with moss and ferns adorning the walls. The creek walk to approach the falls passes through a very pretty canyon with more cascades and narrow sections where the cliffs plunge into the water.
- Rock Slide Falls * (45 ft estimate): A picturesque falls flows into a cavernous cirque with a nice plunge pool and pretty cascades downstream.
- Upper Lion Falls (70 ft; main segment 50 ft; lower segment 20 ft): Two waterfall segments over smooth bedrock and two lovely plunge pools deep in the wild of the Ventana. See Lower Lion Falls below for video footage of Upper Lion Falls.
- Lower Lion Falls (40 ft): This falls plunges into a spectacular circular pool surrounded by cliffs and tall redwoods. Upstream of the falls lies a series of beautiful cascades and pools on the bedrock.
- Condor Falls * (60 ft; main segment 40 ft)(FKS): A remote and scenic waterfall with several picturesque small falls culminating in the main cataract. The falls looks and feels very similar to Sugar Falls except more vertical without a deep plunge pool. I named this falls Condor Falls since the majestic bird can often be seen flying overhead this rugged coastal canyon.
- Estate Gorge (110 ft): A series of small falls in an extremely rugged gorge culminating in an 80 ft cataract. The lowest segment of the falls is a pretty 15 ft drop into a large plunge pool surrounded by tall cliffs.
- Pick Creek Falls (80 ft): A picturesque falls which shoots over a ledge with an 80 ft free-fall into a large, clear pool surrounded by a lovely grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs (Abies bracteata aka Bristlecone Fir), with their unmistakable slender, spire-like stature. The Santa Lucia Fir is endemic to the northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the rarest fir in the world. An impressive rock amphitheater surrounds Pick Creek Falls with hanging ferns making a magical setting. Also in the vicinity are the beautiful bathtubs at Bathtub Creek. Creek walking downstream of Pick Creek Falls features more spectacular gorges and cascades all the way to the confluence with the South Fork Big Sur River with more Santa Lucia Firs lining the stream.
- Hanging Garden Falls * (70-80 ft est.)(FKS): Located near the headwaters of Ventana Mesa Creek this falls is not high flow, but instead achieves its beauty through its delicate nature. There are two segments, with a shorter segment around 15 ft and the balance the much taller upper segment for 70-80 ft in the aggregate. The falls does not really contain a plunge pool, but the lush setting is unmatched by any of the Ventana waterfalls I have seen. Thick moss cloaks the entire rock facade, both underneath the watercourse and on the surrounding cliffs. Other vibrant green vegetation, including a large colony of five finger ferns, hangs from the cliffs besides the falls. Hanging Garden Falls seems like a very fitting name for this magical cataract with its hanging garden of ferns and moss.
- Ventana Mesa Falls * (50 ft est.): Countless picturesque cascades and pools in the lower part of Ventana Mesa Creek above the Entrance Falls culminate in a stunning waterfalls that contains a large pool with a circular amphitheater and tall cliffs. The water tumbles at least 50 ft, all in free-fall. This falls is more impressive than the Entrance Falls, both in height and setting. Video footage of Ventana Mesa Creek below, including Ventana Mesa Falls.
- Ventana Mesa “Entrance Falls” (25 ft est.): Right at the confluence of Ventana Mesa Creek and the Carmel River within the Carmel River gorge, the Entrance Falls to Ventana Mesa Creek is part of the magic of the Carmel River gorge described above. The falls shoots over sloping slick rock with ferns and moss in a very pretty setting. Above the Entrance Falls are a pair of beautiful pools, one turquoise and the other emerald.
- Carmel River Falls and Gorge (40 ft est.): Deep in the Carmel River canyon is a remarkable gorge that is one of the highlights of the Carmel River and in my opinion, the entire Ventana. The gorge contains towering cliffs, a deep pool, a beautiful slick rock cascade and a major waterfall along the main stem of the Carmel River. This extremely rugged section of the river is remarkably hidden despite the Carmel River Trail and Round Rock Camp Trail passing nearby.
- Pine Falls (40 ft est.): Pine Falls is located near the headwaters of the Carmel River about three quarters of a mile downstream from lovely Pine Valley. As such, flow over the falls is rarely large, but the falls is particularly aesthetic with a section of free fall and a large clear pool. The setting is lush with moss clinging to the rocks and a very pretty forest of old growth Santa Lucia firs fills the canyon.
- Lower Pine Falls (est. 100 ft aggregate): Located less than a quarter of a mile downstream of Pine Falls, it appears few people know about Lower Pine Falls but it’s an impressive sight and very different in character from Pine Falls making it worthy of a visit. There is no large pool at Lower Pine Falls. Instead, the falls is a series of large cascades over smooth bedrock scrubbed clean of moss. This smooth bedrock is rather hazardous for climbing, but a hand line has been placed in the most precarious spot to assist. It’s a rather chaotic scene as the falls tumbles down the numerous steps strewn with large boulders and sculptured bedrock. The highest segment of the falls is the most impressive and concentrated while lower down the water course splits. This would be an amazing falls to see in higher flow.
- Salmon Creek Falls (100 ft est.): By all metrics Salmon Creek Falls is impressive: it has great volume with its location near Salmon Creek’s outlet into the ocean, its a strikingly tall falls, and the setting is stunning with a large pool, boulders and cliffs. The only detraction from an otherwise beautiful falls is its close proximity to the highway and the resultant overuse of the area and careless visitors leaving trash.
- Upper Salmon Creek Falls (25 ft): While only about a quarter of the height of the main Salmon Creek Falls with significantly less volume, Upper Salmon Creek falls possess a pristine and unfettered beauty that is lost at the main falls. Unlike the main falls, Upper Salmon Creek Falls is not easily accessible and it appears few venture to the shores of its large circular pool. Upper Salmon Creek Falls is a gem. Video footage in low flow above and high flow below.
- Rainbow Falls (55 ft): Located about a half mile south of Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Trail, Rainbow Falls is along a small tributary of the South Fork Little Sur River. Visibility is limited from the South Fork Trail but a better view can be found just off the trail. The falls never has much volume so it is best viewed after winter rains. What makes Rainbow Falls so special is its extremely lush amphitheater of ferns and moss and the delicate nature of the falls as it plunges over a nearly vertical cliff. See video footage of Rainbow Falls in the Pick Creek Falls video above.
- Unicorn Falls * (30 ft): Water flows down a smooth rock face into a pool that undercuts the cliff face forming a cave.
- Ambition Falls * (200 ft aggregate over half dozen steps): Ambition Falls is a series of six picturesque steps over bedrock in one of the most remote and rugged corners of the Ventana Wilderness. The video below shows the falls from bottom to top.
- Endeavor Falls * (35 ft est.): A pretty falls in one of the most remote spots in the Ventana Wilderness.
- Circular Pool #1 (15 ft est.): The first circular pool along the Little Sur River is the largest pool of three and features the tallest falls and also the most vertical cliff amphitheater surrounding the pool. A large section of the cliff above the first pool collapsed over the winter depositing a large pile of rock debris into about 30% of the pool so for the time being the first circular pool is not very circular. Video footage of all three pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #2 (5-10 ft steps): The second circular pool is significantly smaller than the first, both in size of the pool and height of its falls. However, immediately above this pool lies a series of small cascades and mini-pools over slick rock that are stunning, particularly in periods of moderate flow. In fact, this section is one of the highlights of the entire Little Sur River. Video footage of all three Circular Pools is below Circular Pool #3.
- Circular Pool #3 (12 ft est): The third circular pool is the culmination of a magnificent narrow gorge where the cliffs on both sides come right down into the river resulting a deep pool beneath the falls.
See the rest of the list at Waterfall Project Part II!