Waterfalls of Big Sur

Updated May 18, 2015 to include Devils Falls and Hellhole Falls
Updated May 11, 2015 to include Canogas Falls Video

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 capture 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 on the South Fork Devils Canyon Creek which drains the remote north side of Cone Peak, 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. While Canogas Falls is within the Ventana Wilderness, the easiest access entails passing through Big Creek Reserve which is closed to the public for all but one day of the year. 
  • Devils Falls (80-90 ft est): 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 is located along the pristine Middle Fork Devils Canyon Creek, one of the most rugged and remote drainages in the wilderness where few humans have set foot. 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 steps 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 spire I dubbed “Devils Spire”. Similar to Canogas Falls on the South Fork Devils Canyon, Devils Falls has thick accumulation of mineral deposits on the rock surfaces in the pools and over the falls.    
  • 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.  
  • 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 Sur Condor Loop

The Big Sur condor loop is an awesome coastal loop at the heart of the Big Sur coast. The route starts with a direct route up Anderson Peak (aka “Anderson Direct”) from McWay Falls, gaining 4,000 feet in less than 3 miles by following an old firebreak/underground utilities line up the prominent ridge between McWay Canyon and Anderson Canyon. Anderson Direct is to Anderson Peak what Stone Ridge is to Cone Peak; an extremely steep ridge climb with stunning coastal views. Unlike Stone Ridge, Anderson Direct is not grassy and the upper two-thirds are essentially a continuous blowdown with literally thousands of burnt snags over the route from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. There are also some patches of festering poison oak to wade through, but the good news is the brush is relatively light. It’s an arduous route, but it’s easily the most efficient way to reach Anderson Peak on foot and remarkably scenic with enormous views up and down the Big Sur coast . GPS data here.

About 1 mile up the ridge we passed right next to the home of the local condor population. They were resting on the crowns of the redwoods in the early morning sunshine, presumably drying off from the recent rains. The condors were the closest I have ever seen so I could see their features in detail. The condor has a very prehistoric look. An extensive reintroduction program has allowed the majestic California condor to return to its native habitat soaring over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1987, the California condor was eradicated from the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The remaining 22 birds were taken into captivity to prevent species extinction. Starting in 1992, the birds were reintroduced into the wild and Big Sur was one of the earliest release sites. Currently there are an estimated 237 free-flying condors in California, many of which still reside in Big Sur but the population’s range has expanded to Pinnacles National Park, Ventura County and the Transverse Ranges. On this day we were grateful to see 9 of these magnificent birds. Later on our ascent the condors took off and flew as a group showcasing there remarkable wing span that is up to 9.5 feet! The wings are so big that when the bird flies above enough air is pushed aside that it makes a sound like a kite. At one point we saw all 9 condors circling above us. It seemed as if the condors followed us throughout our journey as we continued to see these majestic birds from Coast Ridge Road and on the descent of the DeAngulo Trail, hence the name I gave this loop. While there is no guarantee of seeing condors in this area, let alone 9 at the same time, this was not the first time I’ve seen condors soaring above Torre Canyon, Partington Canyon and McWay Canyon. From Anderson Peak, we took the Coast Ridge Road for about 4 miles with a continuation of coastal vistas and also great views of the interior Ventana including the South Fork Big Sur River drainage, Ventana Double Cone, Black Cone and Junipero Serra. We then descended the DeAngulo Trail. Overall, the DeAngulo trail was in decent condition, and now even better since we cleared out branch debris and Brian did substantial pruning with his loppers. There were excellent views to Boronda Ridge and looking north up the coast. At the bottom of DeAngulo, we ran along Hwy 1 for one mile to connect into the Julia Pfieffer Burns Trail network including the Tanbark Trail, Waters Trail and Ewoldsen Trail, ultimately depositing us at McWay Falls to complete the loop. The highlight of this section was beautiful Partington Canyon, lush as ever with nice flow through Partingon Creek’s cascades. While McWay Falls is definitely touristy, it’s popular for a reason and a great way to finish the loop with afternoon light on the falls. GPS data here

Partington Cove to McWay Falls

The Big Sur/Ventana Wilderness area has captured my attention recently. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the meeting of land and ocean occur with such impressive, rugged relief. Add to that the pristine wilderness, much of which is remote and difficult to access, and you get a paradise for adventure running. I’ve already posted on several routes that I believe are classics and expect many more to come. Perhaps at some point I will create a summary post that will function as an online guide to my favorite Big Sur adventures. For this post I describe an aesthetic way to cover virtually all of the trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by running from Partington Cove to McWay Falls and back. The route includes the famous Ewoldson Loop, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in all of Big Sur. The praise for the Ewoldson Loop is for good reason: the trail features the most impressive stand of old growth redwoods in the Santa Lucia Mountains and spectacular coastal views. The sharp transitions between lush redwood forest and coastal chaparral are spectacular. A trip up the Ewoldson trail starts near the iconic McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet over cliffs onto white sands and a turquoise cove. The loop gives a taste of virtually everything Big Sur has to offer. The 2008 Basin Complex fire closed the trail for over five years with heavy damage reported, but it has recently been reopened for the public’s enjoyment. On my recent visit I was happy to see that the redwood forest has made a vigorous comeback. Most redwoods appear to have survived the fire and new limbs and saplings are sprouting with vigor – a testament to the resiliency of redwoods. I imagine in 10 yeas it will be difficult to notice the fire that once roared through this forest. Work crews have also built a series a magnificent new hand-made bridges over McWay Creek, constructed with fallen redwoods on location. By doing an out-and-back from Partington Cove one can run down the Canyon side of the Ewoldson Loop on the way out and the Ocean side on the way back, thus covering the entire loop.

The turnaround point for the Partington to McWay is the iconic McWay Falls. It’s a special experience to follow McWay Creek through its journey down a steep canyon with lush redwoods forest and then to exit the forest at McWay Cove with surreal coastal scenery. If you do the loop in the early morning you will even be able to enjoy McWay Falls without the tourists. The other highlight of the route in my opinion is Alta Vista, an old homestead that burned in the 2008 fire.  This destination is off the main route and unsigned.  All that remains of the homestead is its foundation, a wine cellar carved into the mountains and a few burned artifacts. A plaque has been placed on the site to memorialize the history of the location and the property has been transferred to the State Parks. The best part of Alta Vista in my opinion, and the reason why I recommend making the side trip, is the incredible view across McWay Canyon and south along the Big Sur Coast. While the use trail to Alta Vista is not marked, it’s an obvious junction located at the high point of the Tanbark Trail before it descends to meet the fire road.  The other portions of the Partington to McWay route are equally impressive. The Water Trail, which connects the Ewoldson Trail in McWay Canyon with the Tanbark Trail in Partington Canyon, is a narrow single track on a steep hillside that parallels the ocean with spectacular vistas en-route. There is a grassy section that is particularly scenic with views to sea stacks and turquoise waters below. The Tanbark Trail starts with a lush redwood forest in Partington Canyon and then ascends up to the ridge with great views across Partington Canyon to Partington Ridge and Boronda Ridge. On the other side of Hwy 1, a dirt road descends 0.5 miles to Partington Cove and Partington Beach. An old tunnel provides access to the Cove with rich history and the scenic beach features towering bluffs and ocean smoothed rocks. These coastal destinations are well worth the short extension to complete the tour of the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. These trails are phenomenal trail running and provide an excellent mix of all that Big Sur offers. Strava route here

Big Sur Coast

The Big Sur coast is a national treasure. Mountains rise from the oceanside to heights of over 5,000 feet within a matter of miles creating a rugged seascape that inspires with spectacular beaches, picturesque rock formations, and paradisaical turquoise water on sunny afternoons.  The diversity on land is truly remarkable ranging from lush redwood-filled canyons and coastal oak woodlands to grassy meadows and chaparral. Sometimes the contrast in foliage can be found within a few foot proximity. The day after the Stone Ridge climb to Cone Peak, we toured some favorite spots along the coast:

  • Nacimiento-Fergusson Road: the only road across the Santa Lucia Range with stupendous views of the coast
  • Jade Cove: a rugged and rocky cove where you might find some jade
  • Sand Dollar Beach: a spectacular crescent-shaped beach with white sands set below the cliffs of Pacific Valley bluff with numerous rock formations 
  • Pacific Valley Bluff: One of the best short hikes in all of Big Sur with 360 degree views and great wildflowers in the spring 
  • McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park: Perhaps the most photographed subject in all of Big Sur, the iconic McWay Falls is a special spot
  • Pfieffer Beach: a rugged beach with patches of purple sands and impressive rock formations near Big Sur.

There remains many spots I have yet to visit along the coast so I look forward to returning to Big Sur in the future.  Below are some of my favorite photos from the tour.