McWay Creek drains a watershed of about 1730 acres (700 ha) and flows generally southwest for 2.5 miles (4.0 km) through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park from McWay Canyon to McWay Falls, which cascades 80 feet (24 m) over a sea cliff into a cove on the Big Sur coast, about 30 miles (48 km) south-southeast of Carmel and 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Lucia, California. The creek is named after Christopher McWay and Rachel McWay who were pioneers from New York that homesteaded the canyon in the late 1870s and grazed cattle on the Saddle Rock Ranch. The cove goes by several different names including Saddle Rock Cove, McWay Cove, and Waterfall Cove. Most of McWay Canyon is underlain by a quartz diorite pluton of the Salinian terrane that lies west of the main trace of the San Andreas Fault system with exposures at Bodega Head to the north and Mount Pinos to the south. Quartz diorite is an igneous intrusive rock comprised of feldspar and quartz, where the quartz is 5-20% of the rock. The headwaters of the creek and the bedrock surrounding the cove are metamorphosed sedimentary rocks called biotite schist and gneiss that formed during the Mesozoic under conditions of high pressure and temperature related to the formation of the pluton. Schist is a metamorphic rock composed of mineral grains easily seen with a low-power hand lens and oriented in such a way that the rock can be split into thin flakes or plates. This texture reflects a high content of platy minerals, such as micas, talc, chlorite, or graphite. Gneiss is another common and widely distributed type of metamorphic rock formed at higher temperatures and pressures than schist. Gneiss nearly always shows a banded texture characterized by alternating dark and light colors. In 1983, Big Sur experienced one of the wettest years on record resulting in several landslides and mudflows, including an extremely large mudslide immediately north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The mudflow entered the ocean immediately to the north of the cove at the mouth of McWay Creek and closed the highway for a year while the road was repaired. The landslide and subsequent road work deposited nearly 81 million cubic feet (2.3 million cubic meters) of material at the base of the sea cliff. Wave action then transported some of the debris south and into the cove, forming a sandy beach beneath the falls.
The archaeological record indicates that humans have inhabited the central California coast for about 8,000 years, and the Esselen people appeared about 5500 years ago. Linguistic evidence indicates that they may have originated much farther north in the San Francisco Bay area until they were displaced by the Ohlone people. The Esselen are the first known residents of the Big Sur coast and their territory extended from Point Sur in the north to Big Creek in the south, and inland including the upper tributaries of the Carmel River and Arroyo Seco watersheds. The Esselen inhabited fixed village locations, and followed food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest sea otters, mussels, abalone, and other sea life. In the summer and fall, they traveled inland to gather acorns and hunt deer. The name of the tribe may refer to the name of a major village, possibly named Exse’ein, or the place called Eslenes, which was where the Spanish built the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. The village name may be derived from a tribal location known as Ex’selen, or ‘the rock’, referring to the massive promontory at Point Sur. The Spanish had explored the central coast of California since 1602 but probably didn’t encounter the Esselen people until the Portola Expedition trekked overland through their territory in 1769. Between 1770 and 1800, practically all the Esselen people moved into the Mission San Carlos Borromeo, and during the period that followed, their numbers declined rapidly. Many of the surviving Esselen married Ohlones, who also lived at Mission San Carlos. Between 1834 and 1846, their traditional lands were taken over by Mexican ranchos. Rancho El Sur was a Mexican land grant of 8,949 acres (3,622 ha) given in 1834 by Governor José Figueroa to Juan Bautista Alvarado that extended from the mouth of Little Sur River inland about 2.5 miles and south to Cooper Point. In 1869, following the Mexican-American War, Michael Pfeiffer and his family arrived in Monterey on the steamer Sierra Nevada, and traveled south for four days to Sycamore Canyon, about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of McWay Creek. In 1883 and 1889, he filed patents for land claims under the Homestead Act of 1862. His daughter Julia and her husband John H. Burns had a ranch at Burns Creek, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) southeast of McWay Creek, and leased pasture from the McWays at Saddle Rock Ranch. In 1924, the wealthy U.S. Congressman Lathrop Brown and his wife Hélène Hooper Brown bought the 1600 acres (650 ha) Saddle Rock Ranch from McWay and built a rough redwood cabin on a site at the top of the cliffs opposite McWay Falls. In 1940, they replaced the cabin with a modern two-story home named Waterfall House. When Lathrop died in 1959, the entire property was donated to the state, stipulating that it be used as a park and named for Julia Pfeiffer Burns. An overlook of McWay Falls was later built on the site of the former home.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is adjacent to an Area of Special Biological Significance that extends for 3.7 miles (6 km) along the coast between Partington Creek in the north to Anderson Creek in the south, and contains 1,743 acres (705 ha) of marine waters. Since 1974, California’s State Water Resources Control Board has designated 34 coastal and off-shore sites as Areas of Special Biological Significance. The designation prohibits the discharges of waste including pollutants contained within stormwater runoff. Four sites are located off the Monterey coast including Pacific Grove Marine Gardens, Carmel Bay, Point Lobos Ecological Reserve, Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Park, and Salmon Creek Coast. Most watershed runoff into coastal waters is from rural and wilderness watersheds, however, there are many road drainage discharges from Highway 1 which parallels the coastline several hundred feet above the waterline. Big Creek State Marine Reserve and Big Creek State Marine Conservation Area are two adjoining marine protected areas offshore from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems. The combined area of these marine protected areas is 14,368 acres (5,815 ha). The State Marine Reserve protects all marine life within its boundaries. Fishing and gathering any living marine resources is prohibited. Within the State Marine Conservation Area, fishing and gathering or taking of any living marine resources are prohibited except the commercial and recreational fishing of salmon, albacore, and the commercial catching of spot prawn. Read more here and here. Explore more of McWay Creek here: