Back in 2015, before the big fires and the big rains, I did a 4-day backpack trip to Sykes Hot Springs on the Big Sur River The trail was good (except for one spot). I met plenty of hikers. Some were obviously experienced backpackers and some were wearing a bikini and flip-flops. Big Sur is close enough to UC Santa Cruz that the student population comes out here for the hot springs. According to All Trails it is 19 miles and 5,000 ft. elevation gain going to Sykes and back. Lots of little up and downs. No wonder I was exhausted.

Or at least they used to.  The Soberanes fire of 2016 scorched sections of the Pine Ridge Trail, the route I took on this trip. Then the rains of 2017 flushed much of the trail into the Pacific Ocean. The result is way beyond the ability of the volunteer trail workers to fix. The solution is going to involve blasting and bridge construction. It ain’t happened yet. So I don’t expect to be able to repeat this for years.

The winter rains of 2017 also blew out Highway One to the north and the south. Big Sur is now cut off from the world except for Naciamento-Fergusen Road which crosses the mountains and Fort Hunter Ligget. It is a long and slow drive now, not without its merits. But as a day hike destination, it is an awful lot of effort. They are hoping to get the southern access open by Sept. 2018 but the historic bridge north of Big Sur will be taking a bit longer.

I really lucky I went when I did.

Of course, I got off to a really late start. Already mid-afternoon but I started anyhow. I figured I’d find something useful and I did. Just a couple of miles in I threw my bag up on a ledge next to the trail and spent the night.

This is not a long hike. It is only 9 miles to the hot springs. There is a lot of up and down The first campsite you pass is Ventana. A small trail splits off to the north and you drop a lot of elevation in a short time. The trail has seen a bit of erosion too. I didn’t stop here on my way in but I did on my way back. I also stopped by the Terrance Creek Camp for some photos there.

One thing I noticed on the trail was the constant irritation of little black flies. They went away in the evening when it was cool. When it was warm, there would be a little cloud of them in your face no matter how fast you walked. They completely ignored the DEET I had covered myself in. Very rarely one would land and actually bite but the big irritation was breathing them in. I suspect they were attracted to the CO2 I was exhaling.

The next camp is Barlow, where I pitched my tent. There are toilets on each side of the river at each campsite. They are not for the faint of heart. Each toilet was a box with a hinged lid atop a hole in the box which was atop a hole in the ground. Most were in perfect view of either the trail or a part of the campground and none were particularly sturdy.

The north side of the river at Barlow was covered with butterflies where the ground was damp. This alone made the trip worth it.

I had the place to myself for much of the day, lounging around and splashing in the water. Much of Big Sur River is broad and shallow but just downstream was a nice section with enough depth to swim in.  This is a kind of backpacking I often do where I hike into a location, set up base camp, and then do day hikes all around. I avoid the wasted time of breaking and setting up camp every day.

Two other families camped there after I arrived, bringing so much gear I’d have thought they were car camping. They were noisy and obnoxious and I moved my camp as far away from theirs as I could. They were not friendly, nor were they hostile, they just acted like they owned the place. I would have moved to a different campground if they hadn’t shown up rather late. Teenage girl with them, definitely put an end to the skinnydipping.

Next day, bright and early, I daytripped over to Sykes Hot Springs. A lot of people there, mostly from local colleges as well as foreign tourists. Nobody complained about my nudity in the hot spring but nobody else was nude so I didn’t do any freehiking on the trail. I am not at all familiar with the local culture and I ought not to assume it would be another Deep Creek.

I had overheard the noisy group saying they were going to skip Sykes and head to the next camp beyond (Redwood). Probably figured they wouldn’t be able to dominate Sykes. I decided I would avoid Redwood.

The springs themselves are several hundred yards downstream of where the trail crosses the river. The easiest way to get there is simply to wade carefully downstream, boulder hopping as you go.

Went back to Barlow to spend another night, Thankfully, I had the place to myself. Spent some time trying to get wildlife photos. Not so easy when you have people trooping by every ten minutes. Nothing was willing to be close enough to my lens for a good shot – except the lizards.

The next evening I headed over to the Ventana Campground. This little gem is probably the least used site, mainly because it is a long steep drop down a trail in ill repair. IIRC, it was an 800 ft. drop in about a half-mile thru some dense brush and badly eroded terrain. It was worth it. Perhaps a half dozen campsites and three of them almost completely isolated from each other. Perfect for a solitary naturist! (Hint: You have to cross the river and move left for the best one, IMHO.)

I do not know of the condition of the various campsites today. A nearby massive wildfire and rains serious enough to wipe out highway one have rendered the place both inaccessible and prohibited for entry. For now, we can only hope.

The Pacific off Big Sur was as blue and as gorgeous one my way out as it was on my way in. It would be a welcome respite from the inland heat.


After 4 1/2 years the Pine Ridge Trail was finally reopened to Sykes. It is unlikely the original rock pools are there. It is in the Ventanna Widerness and Forest officials take a dim view of artificially impounding the flow of the hot springs. They also blame the rock tubs for the overuse of the area.

That and I’m sure they have long since been washed away.