Tweetspeak’s virtual Reginoal Tours take us to destinations of all kinds, finding inspiration in places such as art museums, libraries, and natural settings. Today, we drive along the Big Sur coast to explore a California state park.
On a cold blustery October day in northern California, my husband and I drove south on Hwy 1. If it had been sunny, the Pacific Ocean on our right would have sparkled a surreal turquoise-teal; on this day, however, it glistened grey and mysterious as we drove to our destination, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
We’d seen a photo of McWay Falls cascading beautifully into a blue-green cove of water and wanted to view it in person. If we had only wanted to see the falls, we could have simply parked for free alongside Hwy 1 and hiked down to the short trail. But we planned to follow another trail in the park after seeing the falls, because I wanted see more of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. I wondered about this Julia Pfeiffer Burns and how an entire park had been named after her, so I decided to spend a little more time exploring.
At the entrance to the Waterfall Trail, by the parking lot, we headed out to see the McWay waterfall. The trail sloped down toward the ocean as we walked through a tunnel, built underneath Hwy 1, and came to a T with a stunning view of the ocean framed below by bushes and trees on the cliffside. The salty smell of sea tickled our noses when the wind kicked up. We turned right toward McWay Falls, walking on a well-maintained dirt trail alongside other hikers. In spring, yellow lupine would have greeted us, but it’s winter and the foliage muted. I heard German, French, Mandarin and English spoken, and several yards before we saw McWay Falls, we heard their voices soften regardless of language. People stared, pointing their cameras, snapping one photo after another. My anticipation was building; I had not expected the trail to be so short.
We took the last few steps past the trees and sage green brush that lined the path and turned aside to a small lookout over the cove. I saw the falls across from me, pouring over the cliff, onto a slice of beach, before flowing into the cove and the ocean. In the photograph that prompted this trip, I expected the falls to be larger, longer, more powerful. I forgot photography always edits images, finding the most flattering angle. From where we stood, the 80-foot waterfall looked much smaller than it did in the photo, so I felt a twinge of disappointment. But it was still beautiful, and I watched as McWay Falls dropped onto the beach below and then flowed into the Pacific Ocean that crashed against rocks that formed the cove before flowing more gently into the curved, protected space.
Now that we had seen the falls, we continued along the dirt trail cut along the cliff until it quickly ended in a large lookout area with two benches. The edge of the lookout ended in a sheer drop to the ocean and rocks below. My breath caught as a hawk flew by so close I could see a white chevron-like pattern on its copper-brown wing. As if showing off, the hawk swooped by again. I had never seen a hawk so close.
Behind us, we saw part of a concrete foundation, mostly overgrown with chapparal, broken walls, and what remained of Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown’s Waterfall House. The lookout, where we stood, was once part of the house’s terrace. Helen’s bedroom window faced McWay Falls and the Browns used a little trolley, built into the cliffside, to reach their home from the road above.
I read two plaques facing Waterfall House that explained how, in the early 1900s, Helen Hooper Brown became orphaned and an heiress at age 16 with a fortune of $10 million. She met Julia Pfeiffer Burns, whose parents were early pioneers living along the rugged California coastland. These two very different women became friends.
After Julia’s death, Helen and her husband, Lathrop, moved to Florida, and never returned to their home along the California coast. After Lathrop passed away, Helen gave the property—about 1800 acres—to California, stipulating the state park be named after her close friend, Julia Pfeiffer Burns.
Helen had not spoken to Julia for decades and yet she valued her friend enough to name a park after her. I began to imagine their friendship, wondering what they talked about when perhaps Julia visited Helen in Waterfall House, or Helen visited Julia’s modest home. Did they walk these paths together, talking about the sea or the hawks soaring overhead? What had drawn Helen to Julia? Her warmth? Her practical demeanor? Their relationship spoke to me about how true friendship transcends differences in socioeconomic status and age.
As we retraced our steps along the dirt trail, back under the tunnel, to hike on another trail lined with towering oak trees, and ferns underneath, I imagined these two women, dear friends hiking this land together, one of them ensuring that Julia Pfeiffer Burn’s memory lives on in the name of a California state park where the waterfall tumbles continuously into the sea.
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