Waterfall Trail in Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Lathrop Brown, Helen Hooper Brown, Waterfall Home, Tin House on Partington, Ewoldson,


I DON'T NORMALLY THINK OF myself as oblivious when I go for walks in nature, but I must admit, the first time I walked the Waterfall Trail in Big Sur, I was oblivious. I didn't notice the palm trees, for one thing.

The half-mile Waterfall Trail begins near the parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 37 miles south of Carmel. You follow a dirt path westward, toward the ocean, walk through a short tunnel under Highway 1, then turn right and follow a trail etched into the cliffside, overlooking a small cove. Soon you arrive at the sign: Overlook.

Well, I'd followed the path, admired the small (inaccessible) beach below, and paused to look at the waterfall--a lovely little thing that, at high tide, plunges 80 feet directly into the ocean. When I got to the overlook, though, my immediate thought was "What overlook?" You get a fairly decent ocean panorama from that spot, but you no longer see the waterfall, which is hidden by a thicket of cliff-hugging trees. I was so intent on the idea that the Waterfall Trail Overlook would look over the waterfall that I did not notice the other sights around me. It was only the second time I walked this trail that I noticed the palm trees. Of course, then I was ready for them, because what I was really looking for was the remains of a house I had been told about: the Waterfall House. Sure enough, there at the overlook were several tiers of slab foundation and piled-rock walls, now overgrown. In the midst of all this, stretching upward and vanishing in the shrubbery, were narrow-gauge railway tracks (off-limits to visitors). On the other side of the cove, I discovered another foundation, in what today is an environmental group camping area.

Back at the parking lot, in a small building that stands on the edge of McWay Creek--the waterfall's source--signs provide a few historical facts. The building houses a Pelton Wheel (designed to convert water power into electricity in steep, low-volume streams ). The canyon was homesteaded in the late 1870s by Christopher McWay. In the 1920s Lathrop Brown, a former Congressman from New York, and his wife, Helen Hooper Brown, purchased McWay's Saddle Rock Ranch and built the first of two successive houses at what is today Waterfall Overlook. In 1961 Helen Hooper Brown donated the entire property of some 1,800 acres to the state for a park, stipulating that it be named for Julia Pfeiffer Burns, "a true pioneer."

With a little digging, I began to uncover more facts, some photographs, and lots of unsubstantiated but entertaining stories. I also began to acquire a true appreciation for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Not only is it a natural wonder, with trails that take in the enchanting oceanside waterfall, another waterfall farther inland, redwood groves, high chaparral, oak-dotted meadows, and grassy ridges; it also provides a capsule version of the central coast's colorful history, from homesteading days right up to the present.

What brought the Browns to Big Sur is not entirely clear. One story has it that one of their two daughters had learned about this stretch of the California coast in school. The family came to look, and fell in love with the place. Add to that the story that they wanted to buy property in a place without roads, and you have a perfect reason to build a house in the middle of nowhere. (The Big Sur stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway was not completed until 1937.)

Julia Pfeiffer Burns leased pasture from the Browns. A daughter of the first permanent settlers in Big Sur, she was less than a year old when she arrived there with her parents, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, in 1869. She remained single, living with her parents until she was in her mid-forties, and eventually ran the ranch for her aging father: caring for the stock, milking the cows, plowing, planting, mowing, maintaining substantial flower and vegetable gardens, and keeping the machinery in repair. In 1915 she married John Burns, another homesteader, and settled with him at Burns Creek, just over the ridge from McWay Creek.

The couple ran cattle on Saddle Rock Ranch. Later they also rented the Hot Springs (now Esalen Institute), where Julia provided meals and accommodations for visitors. In the book Big Sur Women (Big Sur Women's Press, 1985, Judith Goodman, ed.), her niece, Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, characterized Julia as a hard worker who "loved people, picnics, dances, and whipped cream cakes," and who led children "on many joyous excursions to what now is Pfeiffer Beach."

Julia and Helen formed a close friendship during the last years of Julia's life (she died in 1928, just a few years after the Browns' arrival). The fact that Helen wanted the park to be named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns certainly bespeaks her admiration for this practical frontier woman.

The Browns' first house on the promontory was a rough redwood structure. In the mid-1930s they replaced it with a sumptuous two-story residence. Their granddaughter, Pam Grossman, recalls a black marble staircase, eight feet wide at the top and 16 feet wide at the bottom, and huge plate-glass windows with incredible views up and down the coast. Inlaid in the entryway were an ornamental brass fish, an octopus, and a compass rose. Terraced gardens climbed from the rear of the house toward a caretaker's cottage, which was linked to the house by a mining-car line affectionately dubbed the "Big Sur & Pacific." Like almost everything else on the ranch, the rail car was powered by the Pelton Wheel. Across the cove, behind the waterfall, stood a lath house, next to the vegetable garden. (That explained the other foundation I had seen.) Life in Big Sur required a high level of self-sufficiency then, as it does even today.

The Browns spent most of their time traveling, and visited the Waterfall House infrequently. When they did come, they stayed for a while. In 1944 they built another house, the ruins of which can be found on a hillside at the top of the park's Tan Bark Trail. Because it was wartime and building materials were hard to come by, the Tin House was made of the shells of two gas stations patched together. One story has it that Helen, who suffered from arthritis, wanted a second home above the summertime fog. On their first night in the house, though, the Browns encountered an unexpected annoyance: as the metal structure cooled after the hot day, a boisterous crinkling noise arose. One sleepless night was enough, and Helen decided to put up with the fog down below.

In deeding Saddle Rock Ranch to the state, Helen Hooper Brown specified that the land to the west of Highway 1 should be "unmarred by further construction or out-of-place man-made improvements" and that the Waterfall House should be made into a "museum for the custody and display of indigenous Indian relics, flora and fauna of the California coastal area, and historical objects pertaining to the Big Sur country."

If the house was not made into a museum within five years, it was to be razed. In the end, various obstacles kept the state from acting--a shortage of funds, competing museums, lack of easy access to the site. Five years passed, and in 1965 the house was torn down.

Things can change quickly in Big Sur. In 1983 a huge fire and, two years later, landslides altered the topography of McWay Cove. A beach formed. Where once the waterfall plummeted directly into the sea at all times, today it meets the water only when the tide is in.

Around the remnants of the Waterfall House, alien palms and eucalypts grew and spread, blocking the views of the waterfall and of the majestic Big Sur coast to the north and south. What had been the vegetable garden was shaded over by cypresses and pines.

Today, the overgrown foundations of the Waterfall House are interesting, especially when juxtaposed with colorful stories. The non-native trees, however, are a bit unfortunate. The situation is being studied, and it's possible that the trees will be removed before too long.

I, for one, find pleasure in the idea of a wind-buffeted promontory, with a sign: "Overlook"--and a sweeping vista of a rocky coast, free of palm trees and human dwellings, graced by a charming waterfall.


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