HowTo Hike Sykes Hot Springs
A trail report from February 11, 2006 – Brian Wiese
Update: For tail maps and information get yourself the Big Sur and Ventana Wilderness Map from Wilderness Press, read and update the trail reports in the Ventana Wild Forums before you go and upon return. I’d also recommend this Online Ventana Trail Map (google maps) as well as Big Sur California – Hiking, Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes on EveryTrail for your iPhone, and other Ventana Wild Maps.
The short outline below will help you navigate this longer text. Feel free to skip to #5 – Finally on the way to Sykes for the whole trail report, excluding my little hiking mixup in the beginning that started the night before. Numbered links are to photos in my gallery.
- The Hike Begins
- Loosing the Trail
- Looking for the Trail
- Finally on the way to Sykes
- Five Mile Trek to Sykes
- Arrival at Sykes Hot Springs
- Heading Back Out
To get to there, drive roughly 27 miles south from Rio Rd. in Carmel on Hwy 1 to “Big Sur Station”, which will take about 35 minutes at a good safe pace for Hwy 1, expect a little more time due to severe fog or traffic conditions. The left turn to “Big Sur Station” is just 1/2 mile past the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you want to buy a map or need a fire permit, the offices are open 8am-4:30pm. You can pay the parking fee of $4/night by filling out an envelope and depositing it in the box at the front of the lot, just pull the stub to leave in your window. I heard that if you overpay to be on the safe side, you can receive a refund by 3pm from the park office. The Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs (10 miles) starts at the far end of the parking lot (5852). There are restrooms and a water faucet at the parking lot.
Unless you like to setup camp in the dark, prepare for at least a 1.5-2 hr hike from the parking lot to get to the first campground at Ventana Camp or the Redwood grove which are 5 miles out (5858). In February, it started getting dark at 5:30pm and I could barely make sight of the trail by 6:00pm within the canopy of the trees. I did meet two women on the trail though, Selena and Susie, who said they started hiking at 11pm under a full moon and enjoyed it (I think they would have had to use flashlights though).
I started heading out on Hwy 1 from Monterey around 4pm, pretty much in middle of some rush hour traffic which slowed me down quite a bit. As I got passed Carmel and along the Pacific coast, a huge cloud of fog (5839) overtook the highway which was both fascinating and scary at the same time. I arrived at Big Sur Station at 5pm only to find that the offices had closed at 4:30, so I wasn’t going to be able pickup a fire permit or trail map. After I got my gear set and my parking fee deposited, I started on the Pine Ridge Trail at 5:20pm which was a little too late to just be getting started. While I could see the trail fine, under the forest canopy it was quite dark already at 5:30pm. About 20 minutes into the hike I approached a stream crossing (5877) which was quite scenic, but you’ll need to be careful to keep your feet dry. Just after the crossing is a fairly steep climb up hill which will reveal some wide open views (5879) of the valley.
About 5 minutes later or so, I lost track of the main trail in the dwindling light and proceeded onward over a fallen tree, winding my way down a distinct footpath to the valley (5880). This path was covered in leaves though with minor debris along the way, and was quite steep going down at times making it a bit treacherous at night. I could hear that I was approaching the river and also some distinct voices upstream… perhap fellow hikers along the trail? I steadied my hands for a few shots of the river (5887) then approached the group to ask about the trail. One of the high school aged boys said there was no trail here along the river, and so that confirmed that I had lost the path. Already 6pm at night in fading light, I searched hastily for a clearing to setup my tent for the night. There was a patch of sandy beach open next to a stagnant pool in the river, and so I figured this would be my best bet for the night. As the group of young adults walked past on the way to their cars, they mentioned there was a campsite up ahead. I followed and within a couple of minutes found myself in a site with a large clearing, firepit and picnic table! I don’t think I could have asked for more! Call it luck or my guardian angel, I feel someone was looking out for me.
I setup my tent in about 15 minutes, with my maglight resting on the picnic table to provide the light. I threw by bag and self inside and to immediately feel “safe” and at home (5896) in the outdoors. One person in the group had mentioned that this campground was closed off, but I was in no position to walk around in the dark looking for the open campgrounds. Since it was still early, I unpacked my food and made a tuna sandwich (5904) for dinner. I never bothered to setup a campfire, though that may have help my clothes dry out from the sweat of hiking. I threw on my sweats and laid my clothes out, but with the humidity and in the dark – they didn’t dry at all. Later in the night, around 7:30pm I heard a vehicle drive in and got out with my flashlight to meet the park ranger. I explained to her my situation, and kindly enough she let my stay camped out in this closed off section of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. She didn’t have any extra maps of the area, but did let my take a picture (5909) of her map so I could see where I was on the trail. I estimate I was about 2 miles in, on the edge of Pfeiffer Big Sur park (the pink zone on the map). I didn’t sleep well that night on the rough ground and without any other dry clothes to use as a pillow since my CamelBack leaked all over my gear.
I got up around 7:30am to find out that I had been in campsite #217 (5911) for the night, and began to scout out for the Pine Ridge Trail. I found that just on the mountain side of my campsite (5912) was an opening with a clear path to the trail I descended down the night before. Once at the top, I found that the straight path (5916) I took the night before was of course wrong, and that I should have turned 180 degrees around to see the trial continue behind me (5917). I “assumed” that I had come down from the uphill path the night before, and so at 8:00am began my trek again happy to be “back on the trail”.
This whole trail looked completely new to me in the morning light, and now I was sure that I was on the right path… but it just didn’t “feel” right. How could I be walking all night with the mountain on my right side, and now it is on my left side? I dismissed the worries since at the least I knew I was back on Pine Ridge Trail. I took some fascinating pictures and even came across another stream crossing. Further along, I could see vehicles parked in the valley campgrounds (5941) like I had seen the night before. Not until 8:30am did I notice a distinct “Stay On Trail” sign that I was sure I noticed the night before, and just up ahead were some cabins. I had hiked 30min back to the parking lot! F-** me is all I could think (5944). So I turned around, and now officially “re-began” my hike to Sykes Hot Springs at 8:30am.
I turned around and started hiking “in the right direction” this time now, and was taken by the light of the sun spilling onto the trail (5947). It felt like some Divine guidance for a moment saying “this way”. So, 10 min back in I came across the water crossing “again” (for the 3rd time now) and was getting quite familiar with this section of the trail. This time though, the view of the ridge was nicer than in the fog of the night before. After 20min hiking in, I was back at the trial intersection where I got lost the night before. In the daylight this switchback was more obvious, and so I proceeded up the trail (5953).
The climb gets steep for another 1/2 mile or so but you need to get above a treeline section to really take in some unobstructed views finally. There is an old rockslide (5957) on the path some 30min in that could be scary for some (5958). Some 50min into the hike (9:20am) I passed the sign and entered into the Ventana Wilderness (5961). I believe the best views of the valley (5966) were to be had here along the way to Ventana Camp (5976) and just after. I reached the Ventana Camp turnoff at 1hr 30min into the hike, but never went down the path to check it out. I hear it is nice though. Finally after 2 hours of hiking (10:30am) without stopping, I made it to the half-way point… an open valley area of redwoods with a beautiful stream crossing through it (5994). This should be a popular stopping point on the trail, and is perhaps the most scenic place to stop for lunch. There is also a toilet nearby. It is just another 5 more miles from here to Sykes Camp.
After taking lunch on top of a fallen red wood alongside the stream, I decided this would be the ideal spot to stay overnight if didn’t plan on completing the hike all in one day. I thought it out though: 2 hrs for the first 5 miles and it was 11am now. Two more hours to Sykes (1pm), the return (3pm) and 2 hours back out put me in the parking lot by 5pm without any stopping. I figured I could cut some time by lessening my load, and even so, I could hike until 6:00pm to get back to the truck before it was too dark. I decided to leave my backpack stuffed away behind a tree and just threw on my swim shorts and packed a hip pouch with snacks, water, and a towel for the 5 mile trek to Sykes. Leaving at 11:10am, this actually cut my travel time down to 1.5 hours for the next 5 miles.
Just 20min after the half-way point, there is a tricky stream crossing (6002). This is one place that you’ll need some fancy footwork or sturdy hiking poles to cross on the rocks without getting your feet wet. I managed to do it, but perhaps not if the water level was much higher. Another 5min or so is the turn off to Barlow Flat Camp (6007) which means just 3 more miles to Sykes and that I traveled 2 miles then in roughly under 30 minutes! (I may have jogged downhill a little!) There is an interesting downed redwood (6018) that you’ll pass through and the remains of a burned down red wood (6021) that you can literally stand inside of. Roughly 1 hour of hiking after lunch, there was a beautiful little waterfall (6027) along the trail and another huge redwood to pass through (6030). Before you get to the river, there is a “passage by fire” (no, not really) where the trail is wide open to the sun and it gets quite warm and dry which feels like a drastic change from being within the Big Sur canopy all day. By 12:30pm, roughly 1hr 20min after lunch I made it to the river.
Once you reach the river, make a mental note of where the trail is as there is no sign and you may accidentally walk past it on your return. Sykes Hot Springs is just a 10min walk downstream, and though there is not a clearly defined trail along the river it is easily navigable except for a few tight spots where I was glad that I didn’t have by backpack with me still (6040) as the rock navigation is tight along the water. With large backpacks, you may want to take some time to scout out the trail for a better route – perhaps by crossing the river and back at some point. There are several nice campsites tucked away along the river, and the scenery is quite magnificant with the crystal clear flowing river (6041). I would recommend to hike in early to pick a nice flat site. There is also a campsite toilet available (6046), and a sign mentioned one on the other side of the river as well.
Once you start to smell the sulfur in the air you’ll know you are close, and just around the corner (6061) you’ll find the hot springs (6063) (@12:47pm). Luckily for me, I had the large pool all to myself (6068)! The hot spring seems to originate (6072) from under the roots of a large fallen tree and then a pool was built up around it some years ago with logs, rocks, and few sandbags to make more enjoyable. The view from the pool down to the river (6070) is spectacular, and I can only imagine how romantic it would be at dusk surrounded in candle light (6093). Apparently it is not too romantic to pickup the candles afterwards though, so I hauled them out with me along with some other trash I found. Some good shots of the pool are (6094,6095), and you can see the one candle I let remain for others to pickup on the romantic idea.
There is also some plastic tubing that feeds a smaller tub down by the river, but one other gentleman already had that to himself. Note if you have not read elsewhere, that clothing is optional for some. I took a little dip in the ice cold river and then back into the “luke-warm” springs (maybe in the 80s F?). I dried off with my little pack towel and the return hike almost 1 hour after arriving, at 1:40pm. With roughly 4 hours of hiking to get back, my ETA was now 5:40pm to get back to the parking lot – right on schedule.
After casually winding my way back upstream and taking a few more pictures, I made it back to the trail head along the river at close to 2pm. I encountered the small waterfall (6117) again 15min in and took a few pictures of various things on the way back, including this white evergreen (6124). At a good pace, I made it to the Barlow Flats turnoff in 50 minutes (3 miles from Sykes) and the stream crossing again (@2:55pm) shortly after that. I did notice a small clearing that would fit a tent just above the stream too. In 1hr and 20min (@3:20pm) I was back to the halfway (5 mile) point and was making such good time that I had a little dinner and relaxed along the red woods (6134) before picking up my load again. (China camp is 17miles further from this location, get a trail map first!)
At 4:05pm I got loaded up and began my 5 mile hike back (6144) to the parking lot. With a full load now for 5 miles, I was still hoping to be out by 6pm by hiking at a good pace. I reach the turn off for Ventana camp at 4:30pm and shortly thereafter took in some great views of the ridgeline. At 5pm the view of the river valley came in sight again, just as I was about to head back down where I passed the Ventana Wilderness entrance/exit sign at 5:15pm. The sun was starting to set and casting red shadows on the mountain sides (6194), giving detail to each ridge. The rock slide (6204) was at 5:32pm on the way back and soon I began the zig-zag of the trail down to the lower elevations. I passed by the intersection where I got lost the night before (6215) at 5:34pm and took a picture of the trail I had continued down (6219) to the river. I crossed the steam (6221) at 5:50pm and noticed it was getting quite dark now under the canopy, making it a bit difficult to see. At 6:05pm I passed the Los Padres National Forest sign and was now virtually back to the parking lot (which had 2x as many cars now) and starting trail sign (6231) just as the moon was beginning to take over for lighting up the night (6240).