Its 2012 and what better way to start off the new year than with a trip to some Hot Springs!

Luckily for me, there are some high quality hot springs just a short ways down the coast in Big Sur, CA. The Sykes Hot Springs are a very popular destination, and get to be quite crowded during peak season. One resource even said that the crowd can reach the triple digits! (This was quite surprising to me considering its over 10 miles of hiking to reach the springs.) I was hoping that since it is January, and between holiday weekends, that there would not be too much of a crowd. However, the weather has been behaving more like early summer than winter, so I really had no idea what to expect.

I left Friday night to head down to Santa Cruz for the night and pick up my former housemate, Cheyenne. We wanted to get an early start on the trail in order to maximize the time at the hot springs, so we rolled out at the wee hour of 6:30AM and headed down Highway 1. It was early, but we were quickly rewarded with a spectacular sunrise.

The view was just too nice to not stop and enjoy it!

We got to the trail head shortly after 8AM and found a parking lot full of cars. Some had clearly been there a while, and others were filled with people getting ready to start hiking. Without wasting time, we grabbed our packs and started down the trail.

Ventana Wilderness. Damage from the wildfire can be seen on the sign post.

There was not much warm up before the trail took off up the ridge in a series of steep switchbacks. They were serious… the only thing nice about them was the fact that they were basically at sea level. Once to the top, we followed the Pine Ridge Trail along the Big Sur River Valley. After about 2 miles, we entered the Ventana Wilderness. This area has been recovering from a wildfire about three years ago. Most of the old trees showed signs of the fire, and other parts were covered with thick new undergrowth (including lots of poison oak, yuck).

The trail made several steep descents and ascents in and out of the valley making for a fairly tough hike, but offering the occasional scenic overlook to the up coming mountains of Big Sur, or back to the vast Pacific.

Ocean view

Yup... I'm stuck

Along the trail, we came across a significant number of downed trees. It was many more than any other trail I had been on, and most looked fairly recent. My guess is that most came down during the strong winds that moved through California at the end of last November. In most cases, downed trees are not much of a problem, but since these were Red Woods, they routinely presented a bit of a challenge… they are after all, very big trees. Eventually, maneuvering over and under the trees became humorous as I occasionally got stuck under them, or Cheyenne’s legs just weren’t quite long enough to easily cross over.

This tree formed a nice bridge

We made it to Sykes Camp at about 2PM. The camp seemed pretty empty, but we knew there were several groups not far behind us. So we crossed the river (very cold) and set up camp. I had brought my new 4-season tent, which was over kill for the conditions since it was basically summer, but I wanted to use it, and since Tahoe doesn’t seem to be getting snow anytime soon, this was my chance. Cheyenne joked that we would have no trouble finding it in the dark because the orange rain fly is so bright it probably gives off light… we later found this was not so far from the truth…

With camp set, we took off down river to find the hot springs. I knew they were about a half mile down stream of the camp, but the trail was not well established. As we worked our way down the river bank, we passed several camps that looked as if they had been there a while. At this point I was hoping there would still be room left in one for us.

Heading down river to the hot springs

Coming around a turn, I saw the first hot spring… There was no water in it! I was disappointed until I realized that someone had a trowel and mortar out and was working on it. How nice of them… but we moved on to the next. There were two more springs, one was full, but the other had plenty of room!

The water was the perfect temperature (~100F), and the air was cool enough that a nice cloud of steam rose from the surface. A stone and mortar wall had been built to contain the water and it was filled directly from the side of the mountain. It was about 4 feet wide, 6 feet long and deep enough to get completely submerged and sat right on the edge of the river. (I didn’t take a picture of the springs out of respect for the nude bathers.)

Cairns marking the hot springs

We joined the one person who had already occupied the spring, and were quickly joined by 4 others. As we relaxed and chatted in the warm water, a line began to form as those who started the hike behind us caught up. After about an hour and a half, Cheyenne and I decided it was time to trek back to camp and round up some dinner.

Back at camp the number of tents had exploded. People were gathering wood, making fires and it more closely resembled a park’n pitch campground than a backpacking camp 10 miles from the trailhead! But as the sun set, it was quite apparent that the people here were much more respectful of their neighbors than your typical car-camper (plus there were no obnoxious generators).

Lunch spot

The next morning we were the first ones out of the camp. Again, there was little time to warm up the legs as the trail quickly climbed up away from the river. This was an out and back trip, but this direction was slightly easier, despite the continuous ups and downs of the trail. By the time we stopped for lunch, a couple of the groups from camp had caught up with us, and we continued to leap frog them all the way to the parking lot.

As we got closer to the trail head, we began passing day hikers. Some in small groups, some walking their dogs, but the most interesting was a family that was out with their parrots perched on some sticks. I must say, this was the first time I had seen someone take their bird out for a walk!

We had made it back to the car, which is always a nice feeling, but it meant the trip was over and it was time to go back to reality… but not before stoping for a burrito in Santa Cruz, mmmmm…

I even managed to get back to Oakland in time to catch a spectacular sunset!

Watching the sunset over the Golden Gate (btw... this is the view from my house!)

As always, additional pictures can be found on Flickr


Pine Ride to Sykes Hot Springs on

Backpacking California from Wilderness Press

Dendrophobia is the fear of trees

5 thoughts on “Dendrophobia

  1. Thinking about doing this trip in two weeks (Martin Luther king weekend) I was wondering how deep the river crossings were? I was going to bring my dog and hes small but generally likes water. Was just wondering if it would be safe to cross with him! Any tips and advice are greatly appreciated! (My first solo backpacking trip!)

    • This is definitely a good trip for a first solo trip! Its the off season right now, but on a holiday weekend you won’t be alone out there. The river crossing isn’t to bad. When I went, the deepest part was less than knee deep, and the river only 15ft wide or so. I also took to the river to get to the hot springs, but there is a trail on the river bank too. My guess is the river will be pretty low because of the lack of rain this year. So I bet your dog will do fine :). As for tips, bring some water shoes for the river. Makes walking over the rocks so much more pleasant :-P.

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