McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins – Big Sur, California - Atlas Obscura

McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins

This Big Sur waterfall drops 80 feet directly into the Pacific Ocean, and inspired the hillside house up top. 


Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is renowned for its 80-foot McWay Falls and some of the most breathtaking views anywhere along the California coast. Tucked up in the hillside just north of the falls are the remains of Waterfall House, long-gone but for its imported palm trees, foundations, steps and terraces. With such spectacular views, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever leave such a place.

But leave they did. The entire park, including Waterfall House, was given to the state of California by the college roommate and best man of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an east coaster named Lathrop Brown.

How Brown and his wife Helen came to own such a remarkable piece of property goes back to the story of 19th century homesteading. Huge tracts of California wilderness were deeded to pioneers willing to work it, a big chunk of Big Sur going to Christopher and Rachel McWay, who first homesteaded the land in 1887. They worked the land for decades, finally selling it in 1924 to the Browns, who built themselves a modern (for the time) home called Waterfall House.

Lathrop and Helen used the place as a getaway until 1956, when they packed up and moved to Florida. When Lathrop died a few years later Helen gave the entire property to the state, but with a couple of provisos: First, it would be a park named for one of the old pioneers, her good friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Second, Waterfall House was to be turned into a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Big Sur. But she stipulated a time limit on the museum’s creation – if it wasn’t done within five years, the house was to be razed. When five years passed with no museum, the house was taken down.

The remaining terraces and foundations are still there, with the bottom level now a viewing station for McWay Falls and the magnificent coast of Big Sur.

It’s easy to see why this spot had such a pull on the McWays, the Pfeiffers and the Browns. There is more coastal beauty than any picture can capture. All three families are now gone, luckily leaving plenty of room and views for the rest of us.

Know Before You Go

McWay Falls, Waterfall House and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are located in Big Sur, along California Highway 1 between Monterey and Cambria. There are day-use facilities on the east side of the Highway, and 2 campgrounds on the west side along the ocean cliffs. The Park's entry fee is $10 for the day, per car, which gives you access to all California State Parks until sundown. See website at right for information on camping. Overlook Trail leads from the campsites to the ruins of Waterfall House, but the California Parks Department has restricted access to the beach below, and also caution that cell phone use in the area is extremely limited. So don't count on any swimming or texting while you take in the most spectacular views of the California coast.

Note that as of March 27, 2019 the park is closed until further notice due to storm damage to the entrance station and restroom. The falls can still be viewed from pullouts along Highway 1 near the park entrance.

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