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.
Tunnel image by Pablo Marx. McWay Falls image by Sean Voisen. Both used with permission. Post by Dolly Lee.
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Monica Sharman says
Thank you for this thorough, beautiful piece, Dolly. I loved driving the Pacific Coast Hwy but had never heard of this park.
I especially appreciated the part about the hawk. What a thrill!
We found this park because of the McWay Falls photo..and the hawk was a thrill…Thanks for coming along 🙂
Maureen Doallas says
How wonderful that this park is named for a woman.
Thank you, Dolly, for a lovely post. It was delightful to take that virtual hike with you.
Thank you, Maureen, for coming along with me. Isn’t it interesting it was a woman, Helen Brown, who named the park after her friend, Julia?
Jennifer Camp says
Oh, I have been here! Yes, such a stunning, amazingly beautiful place! I love your heart, your desire to learn about and get to know the lives who made this park a place for us to explore and enjoy. You make me want to slow and dig in deeper, appreciating the lives who love His creation and the community He brings to our lives. Thank you, sweet friend!
Oh, I am so glad you have been to JPB Park…and I am very grateful Helen gave CA the park and named it after her friend…Appreciate you being here 🙂
What a beautiful rich history behind the Park’s name. Yes, dear one, true friends are not bound or separated. by things the world holds dear.
Blessings and love XX
Thanks for being here to celebrate the lasting gift of real friendship. XO.
Sandra Heska King says
Loved visiting and imagining the stories here with you, Dolly! You inspired every one of my senses.
Oh, your words make me smile with delight..thank you for being my friend in imagination, and in real life 🙂
Oh, I have been to Big Sir many times. One of the most breathtaking places in my home state! In Arizona now but I miss the coast terribly. What a treat!
What a treat that you have been to Big Sur many times…it was our first visit and we hope to return…Thanks for coming along.
Joy Wombles says
Loved reading this! Hope to have an opportunity to go there someday. What a lovely spot!
Love and hugs,
What a joyful surprise to see you here…trusting you and your husband are well…I do hope you can visit Big Sur one day. Thanks for making me smile,
love and hugs,
I find myself with a deep desire to spend time there now too! This sounds like a beginning to a life changing novel. Well done. I do want to check it out this summer. Nice job, Dolly.
Oh, I do hope you can visit Big Sur…your comment about a novel made me wonder if you were reading my mind as I became more curious about Julia and Helen’s friendship after my visit. Thank you for your kind words.
Charity Singleton Craig says
Dolly – This was beautiful, and a real tribute to friendship as much as nature. Thanks for taking us with you.
Thank you for coming along and for noticing that it was both a tribute to nature and friendship….appreciate it 🙂