NOTE: THE TRAIL TO SYKES HOT SPRINGS IS CURRENTLY CLOSED DUE TO DAMAGE FROM WINTER 2017 STORMS. CALL THE USFS MONTEREY DISTRICT OFFICE IN KING CITY (831) 385-5434 FOR MORE INFORMATION.
What better way to relax after a strenuous 10-mile hike than to take a dip in a soothing hot spring? Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur is one of the most famous and popular backcountry hot springs in California, and it is easy to understand why. Sykes in nestled deep in the Ventana Wilderness, a 234,000-acre protected area that was first established in 1969. Sykes became popular during the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and it has since has become a favorite destination for backpackers and locals alike.
Unfortunately, recent popularity has been working against it. Although there are only seven official campsites by the springs, holidays and summer weekends can bring hundreds of campers, and many do not respect the natural beauty of the Big Sur River. Trash and erosion has become a big problem. However, if you pick your departure dates well, you can find yourself mostly alone at the springs.
You will begin your 10-mile trek at the Big Sur Ranger Station, starting on a relatively easy path that parallels the highway. After about a mile you will begin a 1,200 foot ascent, climbing above a massive and awe-inspiring canyon eroded by the Big Sur River. As you climb, you will be rewarded with incredible views of the Pacific Ocean to the west and rocky peaks to the east. For the next 7 miles the trail traverses along the cliff edge. If you are looking to stay in a less crowded campground, there are a few along this path. At approximately 8 miles into the hike the trail climbs again to reach a height of 1,700 feet. The last mile to the river is all downhill. Once you reach the Big Sur River, don't expect to see any signs for Sykes. They are often removed by locals who want the springs kept a secret. You can find campsites both upstream and downstream. For more secluded sites, follow the river upstream.
The hot springs themselves are located downstream about a half mile. You will need to walk through the river in places, so bring sandals or water shoes. Keep walking, you can't miss the springs. There are two lower springs. If you climb 20 feet up the hill, there is one more spring that is often clothing-optional. Take your pick and enjoy the natural spa!
Note that poison oak is ubiquitous in the area. Please do not camp directly across from the springs out of common courtesy, and use only the backcountry toilet at Sykes. Campfire and camp stove permits are free and required.