Waterfalls of Big Sur

Updated April 15, 2015 to include Pine Falls and Lower Pine Falls

While most of the content on this blog is based on photography and experiences from specific trips, I occasionally like to produce special posts that gather my thoughts from numerous experiences into a cohesive list. This special post includes a description and photos from a couple dozen waterfalls I have visited in the Big Sur region, from cataracts deep in the most remote and wild corners of the Ventana 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. This list includes a photo of each falls I have visited along with a short description. Where I have made a video of a falls I have also included the video footage as I have come to discover that video is a particular great medium to caputre the movement of water. While this is a fairly comprehensive catalog of the waterfalls in the Big Sur region, including the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness, there are several falls I have yet to visit. I plan to update this post as I visit these falls, although it may take some time as several of them require substantial rainfall for optimal viewing which may not happen until next winter.

  • Last Chance Falls (120 ft): When in flow, Last Chance Falls is arguably 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.   
  • Canogas Falls (80 ft total):  Located deep in Devils Canyon which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, Canogas Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur. The falls includes a series of three 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. While Canogas Falls is within the Ventana Wilderness, access entails passing through Big Creek Reserve which is closed to the public for all but one day of the year. 
  • 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.                      
  • Ventana Falls (50 ft est.): Arguably the most remote falls in all of the Ventana and Big Sur, this stunning falls is not easy to reach as it entails a 5 mile creek walk along beautiful Ventana Creek from Ventana Camp. The rock facade surrounding the falls is especially striking with white and reddish 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.     
  • 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 above. 
  • 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.   
  • 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. 
  • Mocho Falls (total 40 ft est.): Mocho Falls has two distinct steps, but what is most fascinating about this rarely seen falls is a twisty chasm of elegantly sculpted and polished rock separating the two steps. The depth of the chasm and its twisty nature is such that it is virtually impossible to see both steps of the falls at the same time. The lower step is an estimated 20 ft and drops into a spectacular circular amphitheater with a deep and large pool. The upper step is around 10 ft est. and within the narrow rock chute there are additional small steps.  
  • McWay Falls (75 ft): McWay Falls is an iconic spot and probably the most photographed natural feature in Big Sur. This is a must stop for tourists driving Highway 1 and there is often a line of cars parked along the road. Sometimes the area feels like the international terminal at SFO. The falls overlook is accessed by a paved path that is under a quarter mile. The many visitors to McWay Falls range from selfie enthusiasts to professional photographers. Thank goodness access to McWay Falls beach is forbidden and even for the non-law abiding crowd it’s not an easy proposition to get down to the beach (people have been rescued trying). Thus, even if the overlook is a zoo, you can forget about the crowds when you look out onto the picturesque scene of the falls tumbling into the pristine turquoise waters and an untrammeled beach.    
  • Limekiln Falls (90 ft): Limekiln Falls is located near the bottom of the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek which drains the region between Twin Peak and Cone Peak. It seems like everything in this region is grand and Limekiln Falls is no different. Unless flow is particularly high, the falls is split into two prongs. The cataract is easily accessed from the main area of Limekiln State Park and includes passage through a lush redwood forest complete with a dense carpet of sorrel.   
  • Mutt & Jeff Falls (Jeff 35 ft; Mutt 110 ft): Named by Dr. Jack Glendening after a comic strip named Mutt and Jeff created in 1907 lasting through 1983 with a tall and thin Mutt character and his short friend Jeff. In this case, the short Jeff Falls is the real attraction as it’s along the main stem of Santa Lucia Creek. After recent heavy rain Jeff Falls roars over a 35 cliff into a large, deep pool. Tall and thin Mutt Falls is located next to Jeff Falls on a small tributary with a series of steps totaling over 100 ft but never has high volume and is likely a trickle for a large potion of the year. The two falls can be viewed in tandem. See video footage of Jeff Falls in the Last Chance Falls video above. 
  • Ventana Mesa Falls (22 ft est.): Near the confluence of Ventana Mesa Creek and the Carmel River just downstream of the Carmel River gorge, Ventana Mesa Falls is an added attraction to 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. 
  • Pothole Slide Falls (35 ft): Located next to the Lost Valley Trail as it descends into Lost Valley, Pothole slide falls is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.” The falls is more horizontal than vertical and the drainage upstream is small so this falls is best viewed after recent rain. 
  • Upper McWay Falls (couple steps totaling 30 ft): Above McWay Falls is a beautiful redwood forest and a couple small waterfalls. Upper McWay Falls is one of these falls and includes a couple steps totaling around 30 ft. The lushness of the surrounding redwood forest and cliffs in the canyon makes this a nice falls. It is also located on the main stem of McWay Canyon Creek so flow is decent.   
  • McWay Canyon Falls (20 ft est.): The other falls above McWay Falls is McWay Canyon Falls which is located on a tributary of McWay Canyon Creek with commensurately less volume.  However, the falls is in a pretty setting with five finger ferns and the sprawling root system of a large redwood right next to it.    
  • Pico Blanco Camp Falls (15 ft est.): Pico Blanco Camp Falls is a lovely spot along the South Fork Little Sur River set amid old growth redwoods with a carpet of redwood sorrel. The falls is not large, but includes a blue pool beneath it and a lush surrounding of moss and ferns.  
  • Firehose Falls (15 ft est.): Located on Jackson Creek near its confluence with the Little Sur River, Firehose Falls spits off a ledge like a fire hose into a pretty pool surrounded by ferns and moss. See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.  
  • Mocho Creek Falls (18 ft): Located just upstream of Mocho Creek’s confluence with the South Fork Little Sur River, Mocho Creek Falls is a pretty falls in a cliffy nook with a garden of hanging ferns beside it. 
  • Launtz Falls (100+ ft over multiple steps): Launtz Falls is at the base of  a small tributary descending from Launtz Ridge that flows into the Little Sur River. The bottom of the falls is visible from the usepath to Fox Usecamp and you can get a sense there is much more above, but it is not clearly visible unless you cross the Little Sur River and ascend the ultra steep slopes on the other side. Upon climbing the slopes a tall falls presents itself flowing over a lush cliff face.  See video footage of Firehose Falls in the Little Sur Circular Pools video above.   

Other Falls: Eagle Creek Falls, Cienega Falls, Jewel Falls, Vicente Falls, Pfieffer Falls

Big Creek Reserve

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur.  Extremely intrigued, I made sure to circle my calendar for the date of the “open house” and Erica and I maximized the few hours it was open. We found a wonderful network of single track trails showcasing virtually all of the greatness that is Big Sur, from lush redwood-filled canyons to grassy ridges covered in spring wildflowers with outstanding coastal views. Moreover, the reserve contained unique aspects, including one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Santa Lucia Mountains and a large hot spring pool.  The variety of flora is impressive reflecting the diversity and richness of the environments and habitats in the reserve, including chaparral, redwoods, oak woodland, grassland, pine and even a grove of Santa Lucia Firs near Highlands Peak.

Two of the most important streams in the region flow through the reserve, Big Creek and Devils Canyon Creek. The streams meet in the reserve and flow as one stream for the last mile into the Pacific Ocean at Big Creek Cove.  Along Big Creek is a natural hot spring pool, which is many times larger than the popular Sykes Hot Springs along the Big Sur River. Along Devils Canyon creek is perhaps the most striking feature, the remote Canogas Falls, which tumbles over 60 feet in a series of three steps with turquoise pools in between each step. The setting of the falls nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest is magical. I couldn’t resist taking a swim in the frigid waters in the lower of two intermediary pools. The reserve also features two prominent grassy ridges with stunning views: Dolan Ridge and Highlands Ridge. Dolan Ridge provides an outstanding vista north up the coast toward Boronda Ridge and also south looking into Devils Canyon with Cone Peak and Twin Peak towering above.  On this day Dolan Ridge was covered in a spectacular lupine bloom, the likes of which have not been seen since 1999.  Highlands Ridge, including Gamboa Point, features excellent views back to Dolan Ridge, the Big Creek Bridge, and the turquoise waters off the coast. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.