McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins: Big Sur’s Stunning Tidefall

California is celebrated for its natural beauty. Many admirers of the Golden State will enthusiastically insist that no corner of California is more breathtaking than Big Sur. One of Big Sur’s loveliest vistas is a slim 80-foot waterfall called McWay Falls. McWay Falls qualifies as a tidefall since it empties directly into the Pacific Ocean at high tide.

In 1924, US Congressman Lathrop Brown purchased Saddle Rock Ranch—which included land near McWay Falls—from a pioneer homesteader named Christopher McWay. In 1940, Lathrop Brown and his wife Helene built a lavish house near McWay Falls that featured a golden octopus above the door. They christened their new home “Waterfall House.” In 1956, the Browns moved east to Florida.

After Lathrop Brown’s death in 1959, Helene opted to donate her Big Sur property to the state of California so that it could be converted into a state park. The Browns were good friends of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so perhaps the father of the New Deal influenced Helene’s decision to graciously turn over her former land. Helene requested that the state park be named after her rugged friend pioneer Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Helene also requested that her former home be converted into a museum that celebrated the natural history and cultural heritage of Big Sur. Helene said that if the museum in her former home was not completed within 5 years, Waterfall House should be torn down.

Alas, the museum at Waterfall House never came to fruition. The stately house was razed. All that remains is the foundation, some stone steps, and a few palm trees that are clearly not native to Big Sur. The ruins of Waterfall House offer a stunning view of McWay Falls. It is a shame that Waterfall House did not have a second life as the museum that Helene envisioned.

In 1983, a particularly rainy year resulted in a massive mudslide that created a sandy beach at the foot of McWay Falls. As a result, the waters of McWay Falls had longer to travel before they splashed into the Pacific Ocean. Geologists speculate that over time, the beach will erode and McWay Falls will become a full-time tidefall once again. Until that day, be sure to visit McWay Falls at high tide so that you can witness one of California’s few tidefalls. If you love waterfalls, you should certainly visit Big Sur so that you can see a tidefall.

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