My roommate Ben and I took a sadly short, but amazing trip to the truly magical Sykes hot springs in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness/Los Padres National Forest one fine July weekend.
We took the Pine Ridge Trail from its trailhead at the Big Sur Forest Service Station parking lot. The trail winds around the hills, following the Big Sur River from a ridge for about 10 miles with approximately 3000ft of cumulative ascent and 2000ft of descent between a starting elevation of 400ft and a maximum of 1500ft.
the way in
The trail starts off skirting the edge of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park developed campgrounds. After it breaks away from that area, it emerges from the tree cover and heads up into the hills for an exposed (and hot in July!) couple of miles of switchbacks. Finally arriving at the ridge top, the trail then continues on weaving in and out of the forest, but primarily exposed. Along the way there are two other primitive campsites: Terrace camp and Barlow Flat. They’re positioned at roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the way to Sykes. Apparently there’s another called Ventana camp, but the sign must have been missing. The trail makes its way down to stream crossings (with plenty of places to wet down your hat or bandana if you’re there on a hot day) and back up to the ridge, affording some spectacular views of Big Sur and the ocean. We had a surprise encounter with a rather large rattlesnake who was very clear that we weren’t welcome. The trail is fairly thin and at most points, one side drops off down to the valley while the other side shoots up, sometimes vertically, to the top of the ridge. This didn’t leave much of an escape route or alternative path for us, so we just waited a bit to give him time to find his way away. Apart from the occasional dips down to the stream crossings, the middle section of the trail is relatively hinting at flatness. The last bit of it, though, pushes up one final climb and then a long descent into the valley created by the Big Sur River whose cool water has been teasing from below during the entire trek. At the merciful river, we took off our shoes and immediately soaked our tired feet and cooled down. Then we forded it and found a campsite on the other side. I understand that earlier in the year, this crossing can be a little treacherous. If you’re going in the winter or spring, make sure to bring some cordage to help you across with your gear. The campsite itself is sprawling due to its popularity and they’re making an effort to contain it, so try to camp where it’s already established, please!
There are plenty of flat, cleared areas that skirt the river as it goes upstream from where the trail crosses. Like the trail to the campsite, there is also, of course, a surplus of poison oak everywhere. Beware! We found a decent spot, threw our things down and went in search of the hot springs! To get there, we had to walk back to where we forded the river and then press on downstream, at times in the water and at others on either side. The way is relatively easy and well marked with cairns along the way. At first it did seem like perhaps we had missed them, but when we did come upon them, we realized that would have been impossible. There are three small pools that have been built in the hill that makes the bank of the river. Each is fed by glorious hot water pouring out of the earth. The smaller two fit 2 people easily, 3 if you squeeze and the larger one could handle one more than that. Between that evening and the next morning, we had the opportunity to test each pool and each was wonderful. There is something truly magical about sitting in a rocky tub full of hot water just above a cool river in the middle of the woods. And of course, the water was just what our aching bodies needed after the long, hot day on the trail. While there were plenty of other people there that weekend, it was easy enough to get a tub to ourselves or take turns with another group.
the way out
We hiked out the same way we came in. Unfortunately, the way back is not noticeably any easier than the way in. The trail climbs and falls so much that both are equally strenuous. We took the opportunity to rest, soak our feet in the stream and eat lunch when we arrived at Terrace Camp. The friendly rattler on the way in must have alerted one of his friends to our presence. We had another encounter with a rattlesnake on the way out. It took us about 6 hours to make it back, one more hour than our slightly more energetic bodies required for the way in. The parking lot, unlike the campsite, did not have natural hot springs to soothe our trail-weary aches, unfortunately. We decided they need to do something about that.
All of these pics, courtesy of Ben who had his awesome 4/3 camera with him. Thanks Ben! Full album (until it gets pushed out by more recent pics) available on Ben’s flickr page.
As of July 2012, there are no reservations required, but you do need to have a current fire permit (as of Aug 2012, this links to a pdf of a 2012 fire permit) from the National Forest Service. There are restrictions on open flames at some points of the year, limiting your permit to just cover camp stoves. The campfire permit pdf is already filled out. You just need to print it, sign it, and have it with you. It covers all National Forests until the end of the current calendar year.
At the Forest Service parking lot, there’s an iron ranger where you pay the parking fee ($5/car/night). Get there early enough! Sykes, though a strenuous 10 miles in, is popular, especially on the weekends and the parking lot fills up!
Dogs allowed (but please be careful…we met up with rattlesnakes both days on the trail)!