Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Backpacking in Big Sur

Last weekend, I drove up with my buddy Chris for a short hiking trip in Central California's Ventana Wilderness. When I read in a California backpacking book about a trail to natural hot springs just eleven miles out of the town of Big Sur, I knew I had to take the hike. I'd never soaked in a natural bath before, and I had only driven (quickly) once through the famed region that inspired so many artists and writers.

Highway 1 was, of course, absolutely stunning -- it must be one of the most beautiful drives mile-for-mile in the world. On the way, Chris and I listened to one of my recent favorite albums, "One Fast Move or I'm Gone" by Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) and Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie). Farrar and Gibbard adapted Jack Kerouac's lyrical novel "Big Sur" for music. Here's one of my favorite tracks:

Another video here (of Farrar singing the title track).

The hike itself was lots of fun, although we did hit some bad timing -- a cold front moved in on our last day, and we were hampered on our seven mile hike back to the trailhead by strong winds and constant rain.

Here's a repost of my trail review on Yelp:

Warm natural springs, shady redwood groves, and open vistas. Also, swift streams, fallen trees, and miles of ups-and-downs. And, oh yes, crowds and crowds of hikers.

The trail to Sykes Hot Springs (signed as the Pine Ridge Trail by the Forest Service) must be one of the most congested backpacking routes I've taken. When solitude is one of the reasons for seeking out wilderness, as it is more me, running into hikers every fifteen minutes on the trail is sure to earn the trail a demerit. But the novelty of soaking in a natural sulfur spring after an eleven mile trek is still worth it.

On paper, the trail doesn't seem to difficult. Eleven miles (one-way) to the springs, with not very much net elevation gain. Once on the trail, though, you realize that it's a long, maddening succession of climbs and descents -- nothing too steep, but demoralizing nonetheless. We also encountered dozens of fallen trees that we needed to scramble over or around, and a couple stream crossings that required more than easy rock-hopping. For someone who's taken a few long hikes in the Sierras, it was nothing new, but the surprises didn't wear well on my inexperienced hiking buddy.

We split the trail up into three days (two nights), and I would recommend this to anyone who has the time. We camped both nights on the wooded banks of the Big Sur at Barlow Flats, a large campground that's a short but steep hike from the main trail and hence more secluded than either Terrace Creek or Sykes Camp itself. Barlow Flats is seven miles from the trailhead, so we split the trail up into seven miles upstream with a pack, four miles up to the springs and four miles down with out a pack, and then a seven mile hike downstream with the pack again. I'm sure this was much easier than hiking the entire 22 miles with a 35 pound pack.

We hiked through a storm on our last day; a tree snapped and fell only twenty feet from me (loud as a thunderclap!), and we arrived at the parking lot soggy and fumbling for the car's temperature controls.
Wish I had photos, but I didn't bring a camera!


  1. what a fun trip! you know, chris and i are considering doing a road trip for our honeymoon. would love to get some recommendations from you! :)

  2. I'd love to offer some! Do you have any general ideas as to where you're headed?