GPS Hike to Sykes Hot Springs

February 19th, 2008

Last weekend Shayna and I joined Terry and Dana on a backpacking and camping trip to Sykes Hot Springs. It was awesome. I’ve done many day hikes and overnight backpacking trips and this was one of my favorites. Not too far a drive from SF, the trail was part dusty, part lush forests, had views of the ocean and beautiful mountains. The first day ended with us arriving at a clear, refreshing river winding through camp (altho it was cold) and nice warm campfire after dark. The next day we slept in, had breakfast, soaked in the hot springs for an hour, and hit the trail back home. It was totally fun to do all this with another couple, especially Dana and Terry.

Team is Ready To Start

We decided to go last minute – Dana mentioned they were going on friday night, and saturday we thought about it, wondering if it was going to be too cold (it is February), and if we were allowed to have campfires (California is sensitive to them fires). After an hour of research, Shayna just said – if we’re thinking about it so much, lets just go!! And we did. After playing a little bit in Golden Gate park we went home, packed, and drove down to Monterey. All the cheap hotels were booked, we ended up staying in Seaside, just north of Monterey, for $100. Not so cheap .. but it was President’s day weekend. The next morning we got up, got some coffee, breakfast and sandwiches and hit the roads. We got to the ranger station about 9:15am. We were trying to hike with Terry and Dana, but they weren’t sure when they’d be able to make it. As it turned out, they showed up at the ranger station right after we did. Hurray.

We started the hike at the Big Sur Station, about 30 miles south of Monterey or 2.5 hours south of SF. We hiked the 10 miles in with our camping gear and food to Sykes campground, the fourth camping area along Pine Ridge Trail. Along the hike we stopped for beautiful views, pack adjustments, snacks, and pictures. By the time we got to camp we only had an hour of sunlight left and it was pretty crowded – we had to run around to find a decent camping spot. We setup our tents and it was getting too dark so we waited till the next morning to do the hot springs. Terry got the fire going and we basically hung out by the fire eating, drinking, and puffin’ till bed. We slept in, had some breakfast, another fire, packed up, and hit the hot springs on the way out. Our campsite was on the right bank of the river, and the trail and hot springs were on the left bank, so just like the previous day we had to wade across the freezing Big Sur River – it was as deep as a couple feet in some spots. And if you’re barefoot, you can’t run across the riverbed rocks like I did. Heh.

Sykes Hot Springs Tub

The Sykes Hot Springs were nice, but not that nice. I’ve read several reviews of them online (mark verber’s excellent details, 2004 NY Times , brian’s blog, yelp) but let me set the record straight as of February 2008, when we went. There were 3 hot tubs – each had man-made walls and varying sizes. There were 2 by the river, and a third one uphill from the one that was more downstream. That third one uphill was the biggest and the one we soaked in. It could hold 6 strangers or 10-12 close friends. The one downhill from that could hold 4-7 people, and the one upstream from that could hold about 2-5 people. You can smell sulfur in the air and there is a little bit of algae/dirt in the tubs. When we arrived at camp on Sunday they were all full, and the clothing optional rule was in effect. But as I said it was getting dark so we didn’t go in. On Monday morning we jumped in the only one that had room – the one uphill – it had just 2 UCSC girls in it at the time. The temperature was nice, the reported 100-degrees seemed about right. That’s not as hot as most hot tubs which are more like 104, but hot enough to ease them sore muscles. The downhill one was about the same temperature, but people said the upstream one was a little bit colder.

Let me list some quick details if you’ve never been and want to go.

  • Where – Start at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, off Hwy 1, about 26 miles south of Carmel, 2.5 hours south of San Francisco. The trailhead is in the parking lot of Big Sur Station (not Big Sur Lodge, but just south of it).
  • When – Its open year-round, but best in spring and summer. If you don’t mind crowds, weekends are fine, but start hiking as early as you can. The ranger station by the trailhead opens at 8am – you’ll definitely want a campfire and thats where you get the permit.
  • Hike 10 miles along Pine Ridge Trail through the Ventana Wilderness, part of Los Padros National Forest (map)
  • Camp at Sykes – leave plenty of time to find a camping spot – it’s hilly and can get crowded during the summer and on weekends. You could camp at Barlow if short on time or the ranger implies its too crowded, which is about 3 miles before Sykes.
  • Bring extra shoes or sandals to wade across the river. It sux to hike out with wet shoes.
  • Recommend: water filter, moleskin, GPS watch, fire permit

As I said, this trip was awesome. But it wasn’t the hot springs that made the trip – Big Sur region is just beautiful. The hike, campsite and river, and friends were all above average. The hot springs were just icing on the cake. Plus, it was shayna’s first backpacking trip and my first with my GPS watch. You can check out our hike to Sykes Hot Springs on Google Maps or see hiking stats on motionbased.