As part of our preparations for backpacking Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, my friend Reuben and I had planned on doing a route in the south part of Big Sur that takes in the highest coastal peak on the west coast (Cone Peak). That plan got nixed when we read trail reports suggesting we’d be out there for three days without a water source, so we decided to backpack the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs instead.
The Pine Ridge Trail is well established as the go-to backpacking route for the Ventana Wilderness, the rugged landscape running alongside the Big Sur coastal bluffs and inland towards the Central Valley. It’s popular because about 9.5 miles in (or 7 miles or 12 miles, depending on who you ask), there is a series of developed hot spring pools along the Big Sur River. We had read that up to 200 campers can be found at Sykes Camp on a busy summer weekend (not what you wish for in a backpacking excursion), but we decided the Pine Ridge Trail was still the best option available to us.
If there is one word to describe Pine Ridge, it would be undulating. In 24 miles of hiking over the weekend, we gained about 4,500 feet of elevation, despite starting at 500 feet and Sykes being at 1000 feet or so. Grading was as steep as 30% at points, and 15-20% was quite common. This trail is definitely difficult and consequently those that made it all the way to Sykes Hot Springs were notably younger and more fit than your average hiker. Of course, we also saw makeshift gear setups, poorly outfitted backpackers, day-hikers, and a man who was old enough to be sporting a long, snow-white beard on the trail, so will-power clearly goes a long way on this trail.
We began our trip with a good (but notably pricey) dinner at the Big Sur River Inn. Upon discovering that the campground at the trailhead was full, we decided that, with good headlamps and a nearly full moon, we’d do a night hike to Ventana Camp at about three miles in. Three miles turned into five, with such beautiful, cool evening hiking, and we ended up making camp just above Terrace Creek Camp. We actually thought we had arrived at the official campsite because there was already another tent up in the area, but as it turns out, we just made some couples secluded little spot a little less secluded. Several other backpacking groups passed in the night, so at least we weren’t the only ones invading their space, and the presence of other night-hikers made us feel even better about our choice to get a jump-start on the route.
The next morning we cleared camp early and spent some time down at the real Terrace Creek Camp, filtering water, dealing with a minor poison oak encounter, and making a bit of cowboy coffee. Terrace Creek is a lush grove of ferns, oaks, and a few redwoods, with a stream passing through it with some vigor, even despite the California drought. It was there that we first came across a trail-maintenance crew from Cal Poly SLO and led by members of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance. With poor California State Park funding, the VWA takes responsibility for much of the maintenance of the Big Sur area trails. They also post trail condition reports and have excellent mapping resources on their website. We ended up leap-frogging this group of 15-20 throughout much of the day, but did not see them at Sykes Camp.
After our coffee and poison oak break at Terrace Creek, we hiked 1.5 miles to Barlow Flats Camp, which is located (marked with a sign) just down a few switchbacks off the Pine Ridge Trail. This camp is, as one would expect, very flat and is almost entirely shaded. It has a good water source and room for dozens of campers. We had gone down the switchbacks mostly just to investigate, but stopped for a while to sit and eat trail mix (me) and sardines (Reuben).
Including stops, we averaged about two miles-per-hour on our two hikes from trailhead to Sykes Camp and climbed nearly 3,000 feet. We reached the camp early afternoon on Saturday, finding a few backpackers already camping, dispersed along the river’s edge. In the next few hours, dozens more would come and I estimate that approximately 50-70 people spent Saturday night at Sykes Camp. After making camp and having a snack, we ventured down-river to the hot springs, but found them quite full. A couple men sat, legs splayed, atop one of the pool’s retaining walls, making the one empty pool (directly below) quite unappealing.
Instead, we wandered down a bit farther and found a section in the river deep enough for full submersion. This being another uncharacteristically warm October day, we actually preferred the cold river to the warm springs at this point anyway. We soaked in refreshing river water for several minutes and then headed back for camp, rock-hopping and fallen-tree-balancing our way back and forth across the Big Sur River until we reached our campsite perch above it.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was uneventful. Reuben did a little riverside yoga. I lounged in the tent and watched the trees sway in the late-day wind. After dinner we turned in early, planning to give the hot springs another go the next morning. After playing around with my headlamp’s redlight function and my camera’s apertures and shutter speeds for a bit in the darkness, we settled in for a good night’s rest.
Morning came and we headed over to the hot springs, which were again quite full. There are four pools at Sykes: one small, secluded spot for perhaps 2 or 3 and a series of three tiered spots. The tiered section had space for five or six (though three or four allowed for more stretching out) at the top and we observed 10 people huddled together in the middle pool, while the bottom pool sat empty.
We assumed the bottom pool is not as warm and, being the run-off catch for the other two pools, less appealing for that reason as well. As luck would have it, we managed to join four others in the top pool, and one-by-one they left, until we practically had the nicest pool at Sykes Hot Springs to ourselves.
Nude and clothed bathers mixed together unassumingly at Sykes Hot Springs. We did not partake in the nude bathing, but it really is surprising how little clothes matter when it is understood that this is acceptable practice. One might draw from this typical hot springs reality that the “shame” of nudity is a cultural phenomena. After all, we are born naked and if you’ve been around a two-year-old recently you know that they certainly don’t care either. I won’t veer too far into personal beliefs here (particularly since mine aren’t fully-formed on the subject), but it seems like the shame of nudity comes from its sexual objectification.
After a good, long soak and some pleasant conversations with fellow hot-springers, we went back to camp, ate, and began our trek back to the trailhead. We had planned on hiking part-way and then finishing the next morning, but as we left Sykes we resolved to do the hike back in one go and set a goal of five hours.
Four-and-one-half hours later, we emerged at the car park, not much worse for the wear and pleased with our readiness to tackle a similar daily average for our week-long trek in Patagonia. Having completed 24 miles in 48 hours on a more difficult route than the one we will experience at Torres del Paine National Park, we are now confident that we can handle the mileage without significant trauma! A few adjustments will be made, gear added or deleted, clothing assortment adjusted, and food supply tinkered with (Reuben had a very minor allergic reaction to his dehydrated meal, but caught his error early enough to remove the food from his digestive tract expediently). To celebrate, we settled into the Adirondack chairs set in the river behind the Big Sur River Inn and enjoyed a Coca-Cola. Music played and we dangled our sore feet in the water, taking in a rather lively Sunday-afternoon scene in Big Sur.