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Backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs in the Ventana Wilderness - November 2010

An overnight guided trip called "Backpack Big Sur" along the Pine Ridge trail and organized by UCLA Outdoor Adventures.

Document created 02 February 2011, last updated 08 November 2017

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Big Sur River Valley   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
The Ventana Wilderness runs across part of the Santa Lucia mountain range inland of the Sur coastline. We took the Pine Ridge trail towards Sykes Hot Springs which is about ten miles from the trailhead. Our goal was to spend most of the day on Saturday hiking gently up the Big Sur River valley and to spend the night at the Sykes campsite, and then to hike back out the same way on Sunday.
Overlooking the valley   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
We drove up to Big Sur from LA on the Friday evening and stayed the first night at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. The drive took around seven hours, although it included a healthy dose of traffic from Westwood to Santa Barbara and a dinner stop. Unfortunately it was already dark by the time we made it to Highway 1 and we didn't see the ocean. If you are driving north along the 1, don't confuse Pfeiffer Big Sur with the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which you will come across first.
The group   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
We kickstarted the next morning at 7am with an elaborate breakfast and a few seminars on some of the basic backpacking skills the participants would need for the trip. The trail leaves from the Big Sur Station, a few hundred meters south of the campground and still on the 1. We parked the vans there for 5 dollars per vehicle per day. At 10.30am it was time for "packs on!" and a group photo before hitting the trail.
Rainbow   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
Pine Ridge Trail runs above the campground through the trees for a short while before turning into switchbacks and heading up the side of the valley. The trail eventually flattens out and curves its way around the grassy oak woodlands of the valley heights. The slopes drop steeply down towards the river, and the ocean becomes visible in the distance. The weather conditions on Saturday were perfect. It was mostly sunny, with the slightest sprinkling of rain once or twice to cool us off on the hilly sections and to form a rainbow over the river.
Poison Oak   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
The forest takes over after a mile or two. It is mostly composed of various local conifers, but also features sycamores (which in November appeared as pockets of gold amongst the dark green), and manzanita (which I had never seen as a fully grown tree before). The way is often lined with poison oak, and care needs to be taken around it although the trail is fairly wide and well maintained. Like the sycamores, the poison oak was also manifesting its fall colors, and the trail was bordered with bright red.
I wasn't expecting to get to Sykes campsite until after nightfall (and was willing to stop at one of the earlier campsites on the trail if necessary), but the participants were all incredibly fit and absolutely charged the whole way. We had lunch at the biggest river crossing on the way, and despite taking our time there we were still at Sykes by 5pm. After reading reviews of the trip online I was expecting a lot of traffic on the trail and a packed campsite. We came across relatively few groups, however, and there was plenty of room to camp. The sites are located along the river across a distance of about half a mile and the hot springs are down river a small distance on the left. There are three pools, which are reinforced with sandbags.
Crossing into Camp   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
After dinner those of us wanting to soak made our way down there. It's always an incredible feeling to slide into a hot spring after several hours of backpacking. My perspectives on the present relax, and I like to watch the way the group dynamic changes when given such an enjoyable context. The stars appeared through the branches, and with our headlamps finally off, their brightness only emphasized the perfect darkness of the night.
We woke up at 7am on Sunday morning as well but only intended to leave at 10am. Knowing how quickly we could cover the distance back to the trail head, we allowed ourselves a few hours to enjoy the river and the hot springs again. The mist closed in on us as we took to the trail again and stayed with us all day. The forest was completely transformed. The leaves were shiny with raindrops and the mist clung to the tops of the trees.
Ocean   Photo by Katy Chappaz.
We were back at the vans by 4.30pm and organized ourselves energetically for the drive back as the rain fell over us. Driving south along Highway 1 once more the ocean was still obscured, this time by dense white fog. But it eventually lifted enough to reveal the silvery ocean and rocky Big Sur coastline. I even managed to glimpse the McWay Waterfall famously pouring itself directly onto the sand. Overall it was a great trip. The hike is challenging enough to be rewarding but easy enough for beginner backpackers. It was great to be back amongst some of my favorite trees and exciting to see a different side of the Big Sur region.

Links to external websites:

[wb1]  Ventana Wilderness Alliance website - For general information on nature and hikes in the area.


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Poison Oak Photo by Katy Chappaz.

Big Sur River Valley Photo by Katy Chappaz.

Ocean Photo by Katy Chappaz.

Crossing into Camp Photo by Katy Chappaz.

Overlooking the valley Photo by Katy Chappaz.

Rainbow Photo by Katy Chappaz.

The group Photo by Katy Chappaz.