Backpacking Diaries: Sykes Hot Springs, Big Sur

When a friend of mine suggested that we do our first backpacking trip of 2012 to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness, I said:

“HELL. yeah.”

Into the Ventana Wilderness

Into the Ventana Wilderness

Hiking and camping in Big Sur is always one of those must do’s for any native Californian.

The trip didn’t start off very well, unfortunately. Since we settled on going Sykes just a month before the trip, finding a vacant base-camp campsite up and down Highway 1 was pretty much impossible. EVERYTHING was booked up (we also went the weekend before the 4th of July, BIG MISTAKE). However, since I had just gone camping in Big Sur in 2010, I remembered a very small and far away campground called Botcher’s Gap –I was pretty sure it would have vacancies – it’s mostly a camp for backpackers.

After the long and winding drive up and down the mountain to Botchers Gap camp (whenever I go there, I always think that I’m getting lost! Just turn off of Hwy 1 onto Palos Colorados Rd. and you’ll be fine) we finally found ourselves a base camp – albeit a far away and uneven one.


We BBQ’ed our veggies, ate our tamales, enjoyed our fire, and went straight to bed.

Pluses of Botchers Gap: cheap, guaranteed vacancies, beautiful views if you’re lucky to get one of the 3 spots on the edge of the valley, easy access to one section of the Ventana Wilderness (not near Sykes though). Downsides: uneven ground, sites close together with no privacy, STANK-ass pit toilets, all sites are rimmed with poison oak. Don’t roll off your site!

In the morning, we woke and made the drive down the mountain to the Sykes hot springs trailhead at the Big Sur Forest Service Station. To get to Sykes Hot Springs via the Pine Ridge Trail, it’s about a 10 mile hike.

Notes about the hike:

Despite the fact that the initial part of the trail that ascends through a lush green forest, the first 3 miles of the hike kinda suck. It’s almost all uphill, most of it is very exposed to the sun, it’s narrow, there’s lots of poison oak, and the trail is deteriorating at times. Do it in the early morning before it gets really hot and dry on that dusty trail. Luckily, after the first 3 miles, it becomes much more enjoyable.

A typical view on the Pine Ridge Trail

A typical view on the Pine Ridge Trail

There’s a few good camps to stop off at, so if you get tired, arrange to make your pit stops there!

Filtering water at Terrace camp, five miles in.

Filtering water at Terrace camp, five miles in.

Halfway through the day, our group decided to go to a camp at the 8 mile mark and save Sykes for the next day, because we didn’t think we would want to do 10 miles straight in one day (our group was a mix of 1st time backpackers and people who haven’t backpacked in years). But we missed the turn off for the earlier camps and went straight to Sykes. It turned out to be the best decision.

The campgrounds at Sykes are numerous – besides the first ones you see on the right when you go do down to the river, there’s tons as you follow the river to your left. As we ventured on and on to find a site, a bunch of naked circus hippies wearing tu-tu’s and hula hoops approached us…

They offered us one of their old sites. “Follow us! We’ll show you the best site in this area!” We were a bit skeptical, but we followed the them to their previous site, up on a hill surrounded by trees. It was pretty idyllic. It even had a few areas so that the 7 of us could pitch our tents in different spots. It felt like a home. It even had its own fire pit and dining area! A few of the camps down the river in this area have fire pits, and some even have grills (most of those sites are by the springs, or farther down the way)…

Our lovely Marmot tent on a hill by Sykes Hot Springs

Our lovely Marmot tent perched up on a hill near the Sykes Hot Springs

It was actually really nice! Thanks hippies!

That night, a few of us talked about staying an extra day out there. We had plenty of food, and no jobs to go back to on Monday. Why the hell not? While four members of our group left to go back home, the remaining three of us stayed to relax and enjoy the area for a day.

Joy, doing tree pose by a cairn in the river

J*, doing tree pose by a cairn in the river

I think that 2 night backpacking trips are a MUST. First day to hike in, second day to have fun, third day to hike out. 3 nights preferable — but if you can’t do a longer trip, 2 nights is a minimum! Our second day in Big Sur was AMAZING! We did nothing but swim, picnic, and sit in hot springs all day long!

Soaking in one of the four or five hots springs

Soaking in one of the four or five hots springs


Chill time in the cool river waters. Absolutely heavenly.

We also met these interesting guys by the springs.

These guys brought 20 lbs. of meat, tequila, and a longboard on their trip to Sykes.

Our Sykes camp neighbors, Trey and Shawn, brought 15 lbs. of marinated tri-tip (in a black trash bag), bell peppers, mushrooms, a small grill, a 12 pack of Coors light, a longboard skate board with monster truck wheels, a machete, two saws, and a giant bottle of tequila (with limes) with them to their camp. Yet they somehow only packed a small bottle of water for the entire trip and wore no shoes. They offered us steak and veggies from their BBQ because they didn’t think that the rest of their party was able to join up with them that night (they actually did, much later. OOPS).

If you ever pass by an artichoke farm in Monterrey, say what’s up to Shawn!

Tri-tip sandwich. Thanks guys!

Tri-tip sandwich. Thanks guys!

The next morning, we were so sad to leave this place, yet so satisfied at the same time.

If you ever want to do a hike-through on the Pine Ridge Trail, you can also start at the China trailhead and backpack 17 miles to the Big Sur station trailhead. I’ll have to try that next time (just make sure to bring a 4WD vehicle to get to China. I hear it’s a really tore up road).

Joy's failed yoga pose on a fallen tree.

J’s failed yoga pose on a fallen tree.

For more info on backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs check out: 


For some reason, this tends to be one of my more popular and most searched posts on this blog. If you do want to make the trip to Sykes Hot Springs or do the Pine Ridge Trail, here’s some tips:

  • Bring some Technu for the poison oak because it’s almost impossible to avoid it on the trails (poison oak is generally the worst in the early summer months, but it shrinks back a little bit the more dry it gets during the summer). I washed my arms, hands, legs a lot during this trip.
  • Building off of that last point, if you get poison oak anywhere on your body and then enter the hot springs, be prepared for the worst! I’ve read stories about people that did Sykes Hot Springs and found themselves a few days later covered head to toe in poison oak (some even had to be hospitalized!). The oil spreads like wildfire when it hits hot water. Other tips: Don’t pet other people’s dogs and make sure that your friends are careful about avoiding poison oak too. Remember that it shows up about 2 days after it touches skin.
  • Base camp: People want to know what campground to use as a base camp for the Sykes hike. The closest campground is Pfieffer Big Sur campground, which I LOVE (it’s huge, but there’s some really big sites with great privacy). Unless there’s a holiday like the 4th of July going down, there’s usually at least one vacancy, but book in advance to be sure! Another campground is Riverside, a private campground with little privacy. Most sites are right next to the river and a lot of families frequent it.
  • Some people want to do Sykes as a day hike, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s 20 miles round trip which means if you hike at a pace of 2 miles an hour you’ll be hiking for about 10 hours total. I don’t know how much time you have to enjoy the hot springs if you’re trying to get there that fast! Camp out there, it’s gorgeous!

Happy backpacking 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Backpacking Diaries: Sykes Hot Springs, Big Sur

  1. Janet says:

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  2. Thanks Janet, I feel so honored 🙂 Appreciate it!

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