Sykes Hot Springs

2005 February 12 to 13

Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur

Emily's present to me for my 30th birthday was a Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack so it's no small wonder that we found ourselves testing it out the following weekend in the rugged canyons of Big Sur. It would be my second trip to the warm, slightly sulfurous waters and Em's first.

We left our apartment at 7:30 Saturday morning and started the 10-mile hike from the trailhead to the hot springs at 10 am. It was overcast but not cold and actually felt quite humid. Indeed, as we climbed the switchbacks leading into the canyon cut by the Big Sur River I was sweating buckets despite wearing just shorts and a tee shirt. It seems like the Pine Valley Trail can be divided into 4 sections with the first being continuously uphill, sometimes steep, but generally well graded and with great views up the canyon and of the Mt. Manual Trail on the other side of the river. I would say that this part of the trail lasted about 1 hour.

50 minutes into the hike and we are heading into the mist filled canyon carved by the Big Sur River which reminded Emily of Asia.

The second part of the trail is much flatter but has many short ups and downs, some of them quite steep. It is generally within the forest canopy and makes up the bulk of the trail, taking you to within 1/2 hour of the river that you follow downstream to the hot springs. Within section 2 we stopped at Terrace Creek after 3 hours and 5.3 miles of hiking for a 1/2 hour lunch and I recommend this lunching spot to anyone hiking the trail. It is a beautiful, flat, redwood filled area with a creek flowing through it that even has a primitive toilet a the campground just up the creek.

This photo, taken on the hike out, shows what the majority of the trail is like; under the forest canopy and cut on nearly vertical slopes.

Section 3 is 1/2 hour of non-stop downhill hiking to the river which we reached at 3:30 pm, after 5 hours and 9.6 miles of hiking and a 1/2 hour lunch. The last section is a 0.4 mile jaunt down the river to the hot springs; it is the shortest section but also the sketchiest. The trail requires scrambling and it may be better to cross the river than to try to follow the trail in some sections. We camped about halfway to the hot springs at a developed site with a fire pit and another primitive toilet.

After quickly setting up our tent we scrambled further down river to the hot springs, passing one couple en route and finding another couple in the larger tub but the smaller one empty. The smaller spring can hold two if they are on very friendly terms and is warmer and closer to the river than the larger spring, which we moved up to when the other couple left. After about a 1/2 hour another couple showed up and went to the smaller tub. We were ready to leave and as we vacated they moved in. Back at camp we made a chili-mac dinner with the alcohol stove and hit the hay at 6:30 pm. Hey, it was really dark and we were tired.

Emily has the larger of the two springs all to herself. This pool can easily hold 6 people and is about 2 to 3 feet deep.

Through the fogged lens we see Emily in the large tub and the Big Sur River below. The picture is deceiving in that the river is at least 15 feet below the tub.

Here is the lower hot spring occupied by some sexy guy with the crystal clear Big Sur River that is about 5 feet below the tub. This tub has warmer water than the larger one above.

The next day we ate our cereal in the tent and scrambled back to where the trail meets the river. At 8 am we began the hike out and didn't really stop until we reached the trailhead a bit after 12 pm. I had brought food so that we could have had a second lunch on the trail but Emily had her heart set on anything fired in the wood oven from the Big Sur Bakery and I did not protest. We cleaned up via a bathroom with a sink at the trailhead, changed into clean, cotton clothes and then drove 2 minutes south on Highway 1 to the bakery.

69 minutes into the return hike we made the only water crossing that required sticks, as demonstrated by Emily. My map does not give this creek a name but does show it coming from Mt. Olmstead.

After 20 miles in 26 hours we are ready for lunch at the Big Sur Bakery. This shot was taken just before the switchbacks that lead down to the trailhead. The line in the background is the Mt. Manual Trail which leads to the 3,379-foot Manual Peak.

Lacking the spectacular views of Nepenthe, just a few minutes further south, the bakery has to draw its clientele with food and it didn't disappoint. We had a lovely pastry sampler basket that they have just for brunch. In it were miniature blueberry scones, candied-ginger scones, blueberry muffins, bran muffins and croissants. We were pretty hungry since we skipped lunch, so we followed the pastries with a fruit salad, a cup of cream of mushroom soup (the server claimed chanterelles, but I don't believe him), one of the best cheese-burgers I've ever had, and a three-egg and bacon breakfast pizza. I asked to see their wood oven and was amazed by how large it was (5'x5').

Bellies full and bodies sore we climbed back into the car for the drive back to the Bay Area, stopping briefly in Gilroy for a trip to the outlet stores. Em almost bought some spring-form pans but changed her mind at the last moment while I purchased an article of clothing that no 20 something would be caught dead in: shorts with an elastic waist and built-in underwear. I wonder what I'll wear when I turn 40?

This is my favorite shot of the entire trip, a slug hug, perfect for Valentine's Day.

We both had a lot of fun, but agree that we probably won't do this hike again. The trail is relatively good, the springs are nice and would be worth a 2 or 3-mile hike, but for 10 miles, the payoff is just not big enough.