McWay Falls

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McWay Falls
McWay Falls Big Sur May 2011 001.jpg
McWay Falls
Location Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Monterey County, California, USA
Type Plunge/Tide fall
Total height 80 feet (24 m)[1]
Number of drops 1

McWay Falls is an 80 feet (24 m) waterfall that flows year-round from McWay Creek in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, about 37 miles (60 km) south of Carmel, California. The waterfall is one of two in California that cascade directly into the ocean, the other being Alamere Falls.


Saddle Rock Ranch[edit]

In 1924, Lathrop Brown and his wife Hélène Hooper Brown visited Big Sur, California. They bought the Saddle Rock Ranch totalling 1,600 acres (650 ha) acres from pioneer homesteader Christopher McWay. Hélène became a good friend of Julia Pfieffer Burns until Julia died in 1928.[2]


The Browns first built a rough redwood cabin on a site at the top of cliffs opposite McWay Falls. They replaced that in 1940 with a modern two-story home named Waterfall House. The entryway was inlaid with an ornamental brass fish, a gold octopus, and a compass rose. The interior was decorated with fine furnishings and classic paintings.[2][3]

During the construction of the Carmel San Simeon Highway, Saddle Rock Ranch foreman Hans Ewoldsen worked in the machine shop of the highway construction crew to build a Pelton wheel. He used hand-split redwood from the canyon and other materials he bought. He installed the wheel on McWay Creek in 1932. The undershot wheel ran a 32-volt generator and was the first electric power in the Big Sur area. It supplied power to three residences, a blacksmith shop, and the Funicular railway.[4]

Donated to state[edit]

Lathrop and Hélène left Big Sur for Florida in 1956 where Lathrop died in 1959. In 1961 Hélène Hooper Brown donated the entire property to the state, stipulating that it be used as a park and named for her good friend, Julia Pfeiffer Burns, "a true pioneer." She included the requirement that Waterfall House be converted 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."[2] The museum could not be completed in time for several reasons, including a competing museums, shortage of funds, and poor access to the site. As required by the terms of the gift, the mansion was demolished in 1965.[5][6]


McWay Falls on July 10, 1963, falling directly into the ocean, before mudslides and construction debris caused a beach to form.

In 1985, Big Sur experienced the wettest years on record with 88.85 inches (2,257 mm) of rain. Up to this time, McWay Falls fell directly into the ocean. The huge rainfall resulted in several landslides and mudflows,[7] including a extremely large mudslide immediately north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on March 1. The mudflow entering the ocean immediately to the north of the falls. Highway 1 was closed for a year while the road was repaired. Reconstruction deposited nearly 3,000,000 cubic yards (2,300,000 cubic metres) of landslide material at the base of the slope at the ocean.[8] Wave action transported some of the debris south to the cove around McWay Falls, forming a sandy beach where none had existed. Loose material form the slope beneath the rode is still contributing sand to the coastal system.[7]

The fall now meets the ocean only when the tide is in. Due to the high cliffs surrounding the cove, the beach is inaccessible, and may be covered by surf at high tide. The outlet of McWay Creek at the top of McWay Falls is accessible by a half mile long trail from the road.[9][10][11]

Current use[edit]

McWay Falls is visible from the shoulder of Highway 1, but not from the road itself.

From the parking lot on Highway 1, visitors walk down a half-mile dirt path toward the ocean, through a short tunnel under the highway to the overlook.[12] The Waterfall Overlook of McWay Falls was built on the site formerly occupied by the Brown's home. Visitors to the site today can view the remnants of the home's foundation, landscaping, including palm trees, and Funicular railway. The Pelton wheel is displayed in a small building.

In popular culture[edit]

McWay Falls is featured in the music video I Need a Doctor by Dr. Dre.[13]


  1. ^ "Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park". California Department of Parks and Recreation. Retrieved 2016-04-14. 
  2. ^ a b c Canright, Anne (Summer 1997). "Waterfall Trail on Big Sur" (PDF). California Coast and Ocean. California Coastal Conservancy and the California Academy of Sciences. 13 (2). Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  3. ^ "House with a View". Historical Marker Database. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  4. ^ "Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park". California Department of Parks and Recreation. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  5. ^ Grossman, Pam Canfield. "Lathrop Brown, Long After Harvard". The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  6. ^ "Lathrop Brown, Political Dilettante". Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  7. ^ a b Griggs, Gary; Patsch, Kiki; Lauret, Savoy; Flick, Reinhard; Fulton-Bennett, Kim (2005). Living with the Changing California Coast. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. p. 320. ISBN 9780520938670. 
  8. ^ Hapke, Cheryl J.; Green, Krystal R. "Rates of Landsliding and Cliff Retreat Along the Big Sur Coast, California—Measuring a Crucial Baseline". U.S. Geological Survey. 
  9. ^ Blauert, Adam (8 December 2015). "Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers Big Sur adventure". The Merced Sun-Star. Retrieved 14 April 2016. 
  10. ^ "A History of Road Closures Along Highway 1, Big Sur Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, California" (PDF). JRP Historical Consulting Services. November 2001. Retrieved 2 August 2016. 
  11. ^ "McWay Waterfall Trail". 
  12. ^ "Story of Big Sur's Waterfall Trail, the Browns and Julia Pfeiffer Burns". 
  13. ^ DrDreVEVO (24 February 2011). "Dr. Dre - I Need A Doctor (Explicit) ft. Eminem, Skylar Grey" – via YouTube. 

Coordinates: 36°09′31″N 121°40′18″W / 36.15861°N 121.67167°W / 36.15861; -121.67167

External links[edit]