A Test of Endurance: Backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs

“I need to figure out someplace to go this month over a long weekend. Any ideas?” I should know better by now than to ask my sister questions like this. Of course she has ideas. And they usually involve water. That girl is obsessed with waterfalls and natural hot springs. She suggested we try backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur. Lucky for us, we live close enough to one of the most beautiful parts of California that driving to Big Sur for just a weekend is totally feasible.

Now we are by no means experienced backpackers. But the trip seemed easy enough: 7 hour drive, camp the night, spend the next day hiking 10 miles to Sykes Campground, check out the hot springs, sleep, get an early start and hike the 10 miles back to the car. The grand plan was to get back to LA by 9 so we could go to the Tam o’Shanter to see one of our favorite bands, Waking Kate, play.

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We ended up leaving LA a little later than planned, but that was ok. Our only real objective for the day was to get to Big Sur and find a place to stay the night. And I am pleased to report the drive went off without a hitch, and we arrived in Big Sur by the late evening, maybe around 9pm? It was cold, but not too bad (we took this trip in late April). However, the weather reports for the weekend were looking bleak.

The morning proved the weather reports true: it was officially raining. It started out as just a drizzle, but by the time we finished packing, we were in a downpour. We somehow managed to get everything all squared away though, and after a quick stop at Big Sur Station to acquire a fire permit (required if you want to use a stove or start a fire of any kind while in the backcountry. Read fire restrictions here) and directions to the trailhead (located at the far end of the Big Sur Station parking lot. Overnight parking permits available at kiosks in the parking lot), we were ready to go!

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Luckily the rain let up just as we were starting our trek along the Pine Ridge Trail.The weather was decent, the sights were beautiful, and our spirits were high. That didn’t last though. It wasn’t long before the rain started again. And it didn’t stop.

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Within an hour we were soaked from head to toe, even though we were wearing rain gear. A rain jacket only repels so much water; eventually it couldn’t keep up with the amount of rain being dumped upon us.

Now this trail…I don’t know how we didn’t notice in any of our trip research that the Pine Ridge Trail is graded as strenuous. For a more experienced backpacker, or at least someone in really good shape, the trail probably wouldn’t be too hard. Sure there was a lot of elevation gains and losses, but there were also plenty of mostly level areas to help break it up. But we are not experienced backpackers. So the struggle was very real. And it was even worse in the rain. It took us around 8 hours to get to the campground. On the bright side, it finally stopped raining though.

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As you descend into Sykes Campground, you encounter a river- the majority of the campground is across the river. If you go up river a bit (to the right of the trail), that is where the river is the most shallow and easiest to cross. There is usually a rope set up to help hikers cross the river. The river is pretty swift moving, so be careful when crossing (it was also freezing cold). During times of heavy rains, the river is actually too dangerous to cross, so use your best judgment and maybe reschedule your trip if the weather has been too gnarly.

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We didn’t notice the rope crossing until after we forded the river on our own at a much deeper area. Live and learn.

Once you get across the river, the campground is a little farther up river (keep going to the right). Shortly you will see all the campsites lining the river. By the time we got there we were soaked, tired, freezing, starving, and every other miserable adjective you can think of. The temperature dropped to around 50 degrees, and we knew we had to get warm, fast. The fear of getting hypothermia was starting to become very real. Literally everything in our packs was completely soaked. EVERYTHING. At this point, we had no idea how to get dry or how to warm ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely helpless. we tried building a fire, but all the wood and twigs were too wet to light. It was time to break out the emergency blankets (thank you Mom and Dad for putting one in my Christmas stocking every year!).

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One of my favorite parts about the outdoors community is the sense of camaraderie. We are all out there for the same reason: a love of the outdoors and the thrill of adventure. A couple of backpackers just arriving to the campground saw our situation and realized we were in a bad way. They had extra dry clothes in their packs, and offered to let us borrow some for the night. One of the men even took a jacket off his back to lend us. If it weren’t for the kindness of these complete strangers, I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done. Essentially, they saved us.

So we made it through the night! The whole situation left us fiercely behind schedule, but we didn’t go through all that suffering to not see the hot springs. So we threw our original plans to the wind and went to find the hot springs before starting the hike back.

The hot springs are around a mile down river from the campground, on the opposite side of the river. But don’t use the same river crossing. Eventually the other side of the river becomes impassable. Stay on the same side as the campground until that side becomes impassable, and then cross to the other side. From there, you can follow a trail through additional campsites until you reach the hot springs. There is quite a bit of boulder scrambling involved, so you’ll definitely want to wear decent shoes. We kept wondering how we would know when we got there, but the hot springs are pretty hard to miss. The air starts smelling like sulfur as you get close, and the pools definitely look like little pools.

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And they are AMAZING! Nice and warm, but not too hot. There are three different pools: the first one you encounter is the smallest, and fits maybe two people. Keep hiking a little and then you come across the other two. If you look down towards the river, you will find the biggest pool, fitting around six people. If you look up, you will find the medium sized pool, fitting around four people. That is the one we used. Since we hiked to Sykes on a Friday, and reached the hot springs early Saturday morning, the pools were nice and empty and we had it mostly to ourselves. However, the hot springs get crazy busy during the weekend, so plan accordingly. I guess some people like to enjoy the springs in the nude, but I sure wouldn’t. There was all kinds of debris and junk in the water, and all the rocks in the pools were really slimy. I was glad to have a bathing suit and water shoes.

The rest of the trip went pretty smoothly, and I don’t have much to report. The weather was beautiful, and the clothes we were wearing dried quickly. The hike was so much more enjoyable! Or at least it would’ve been, if we weren’t still suffering from the mishaps of the day before and weren’t in a race against the sun, trying to finish the hike before nightfall.

We ended up hiking maybe the last 1/4 mile in the dark, and practically collapsed from exhaustion when we reached the car. The biggest downside to being so far behind schedule? We still had to drive home that night, after spending all day hiking. And since both of my travel companions have poor eyesight (especially at night), I had to drive the entire way home without any help or breaks. Yikes. We didn’t get home till after 4am. I guess having everything go smoothly would’ve made the trip more pleasant, but our adventure makes a far better story!

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Find additional information about Sykes Campground and the Pine Ridge Trail here.

Author: Natalie Bates

LA-based freelance writer | Blogger | Craft beer drinker | Rock 'n roll girlfriend | Adventurer | Lover of tattoos, red lipstick, and popcorn | World traveler | Compassionate human | Photography enthusiast | Eco warrior | Celtic babe ❤️

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