I recently hiked the Pine Ridge Trail in Ventana Wilderness from Big Sur Station to Redwood Camp (passing through Sykes Hot Springs). This trail has been closed for over 5 years due to wild fires, and since it recently opened back up this April, I figured a trip was in order.
I visited Sykes Hot Springs more than 10 years ago with some friends while in college. I’ve always wanted to return since our experience of the springs was luke-warm back then. It rained so hard that the pools were not hot. Luckily, we packed in some Sapporo tall boys which kept us happy through the cold and wet night.
This time I planned to head out for a few nights on my own with a primary aim to test my gear and fitness for my upcoming Pacific Crest Trail hike.
I left the Bay area before dawn, which allowed me to avoid rush hour traffic and to be on the Pacific Coast Highway just as the sun was peeking over the Santa Lucia Mountains. It made for great views on Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur Lighthouse, and the stunning remote coastlines.
I stopped at Big Sur River Inn General Store for a few odds and ends (sunglasses and Smart water bottles) before parking at Big Sur station where the trailhead to Pine Ridge Trail is located. Parking is $10 per night, which is paid by depositing an envelope of cash into a deposit box at the parking lot. A free wilderness permit is also required, which you fill out right at the trailhead.
The trek to Sykes Hot Springs is a 10 mile out-and back from Big Sur Station and is incredibly popular due to its vicinity to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It’s doable in a weekend, but you should expect to cross paths with other folks and wait your turn to soak in the springs any day of the week.
The trail is part of Ventana Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest. The name “Ventana” comes from the Spanish word for “window,” which refers to a notch in the ridgeline near Ventana Cone. Local lore claims the notch used to be a natural stone arch.
In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed an extensive network of trails in the park, but many of them are no longer actively maintained. I experienced this first-hand in my attempt to get to Ventana Double Cone, but I elected to turn around just before Pine Ridge Camp because the trail was so overgrown. Two tick bites from the night before combined with the slow pace of going through thick brush was enough to convince me not to continue further. I explored the other offshoot trail to Cienga Camp as well, but found the brush to be too thick just past the camp as well. Since I didn’t bother to soak at Sykes Hot Springs the day before, I decided to head back there and take a spa day.
The most up-to-date trail maps I could find, which were recommended by one of the Los Padres rangers, is found at bigsurtrailmap.net. The website features a difficult-to-use, though occasionally updated forum with trail reports. Checking after the fact, the trails I turned around at received ratings from “passable” to “clear” with further sections rated “difficult” and “impassable." I did meet a seasoned thru-hiker on my last day out who made a big loop through Little Sur, Little Pines, Ventana Double Cone, Pine Valley, Sykes, Terrace Creek, and back. He said the worst of the bushwhacking was the mile before the summit. I guess my threshold for bushwhacking is pretty low.
Pine Ridge Trail is marked by a wonderful variety of scenery. The most striking to me are the towering Redwood Trees (some old growth) supported by the scenic rivers. You will also walk among lots of chaparral (Manzanita, Ceanothus), pine forests (Coulter and Knobcone), and oak (Coast Live Oak, Valley Oak). I spotted Big Leaf Maple and Sycamore trees too. Be careful of poison oak, there was a lot of it.
I learned to ID a few new wildflowers: Orange Bush Monkeyflower, Columbine (aka Granny's Bonnet), and Douglas Iris.
I had multiple sightings of California Condor, which was extinct in the wild in 1987. Only 27 individuals lived in captivity. After a successful breeding program, the condor was reintroduced to the wild in 1991. As of 2019, there are 518 California Condors alive either in the wild or in captivity. They are marked by their black plumage with white underside, and ugly-looking heads.
I was never in need of water. The major rivers flowed profusely. I usually only carried 1 liter between refills. The trail has a lot of elevation gain and loss as you weave in and out of valleys and ridgelines.
Ticks were everywhere. If I did this hike again, I would definitely wear pants. I suffered two nasty bites, one by the brachial artery and one by my femoral artery. Be sure to check every ten to fifteen minutes for ticks crawling up your skin to these delicious major bloodlines. I caught many more before they were able to sink in once I started paying closer attention. If you look closely, you’ll find that these bugs are masters of selecting the right spot on fronds and leaves that hang just over the trail. Learn to recognize their favorite spots, and check yourself or your buddy early and often.
The springs are great, but may underwhelm. If you haven’t experienced natural hot springs before, don’t expect a jacuzzi. As sulphur springs, they have a funky smell and a slimy texture. There are two pools, neither of which have much heat or space, though the top one is hotter and can accommodate two at least chest deep. Ease in slowly or your sharp movements will stir up the bottom muck and turn your bath into a mud pit. I found a plunge in the river after the soak to be much more refreshing and cleansing. Honey bees are constantly buzzing around the pools. I stayed out of their way and they didn’t bother me.
Access to the pools requires hiking about a mile down river from where the Pine Ridge Trail crosses the Big Sur River. They will be above and to the left side after you pass a number of campsites along the river banks.
Most of the campsites along the trail have ample space and even man-made pit toilets. Looking to avoid crowds and because of my changes in plans, I camped the first night at Redwood Camp and the second night at Terrace Creek.
Lastly, I checked out Garrapata Beach and Sobranes Point after finishing the trail and driving North on Highway One for about 30 minutes. Garrapata beach is worth the spot to walk the beautiful coastline, was your dirty feet in the cold salty Pacific, and reflect on your trip.
My route: https://tinyurl.com/gaia-route-sykes
Points of interest: https://tinyurl.com/sykes-points-of-interest
My Gear: https://keeganleary.com/gear/
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