November 16, 1997
The Ventana Wilderness Area offers some excellent opportunities for early and late season backpacking. Encompassing the young, rugged St. Lucia mountain range, Ventana, meaning “window” in Spanish, is a 261-square-mile designated wilderness area that follows the Big Sur coastline 54 miles between Carmel and Pacific Valley. In keeping with its name, many of Ventana’s 261 miles of hiking trails offer dramatic views of the endless Pacific Ocean. Too hot in the summer when temperatures soar into the high 90s, autumn brings pleasant 60-70 degree days, with nights dipping into the 40s. One popular destination is Sykes Camp and the adjacent hot springs along the Pine Ridge Trail.
Any free-living, granola-eating, tree-hugging central coast Californian worth their sea salt has been to Sykes. I imagined a mystical place where decadent, dripping, naked hippies walked around in slow motion while discussing Terence McKenna and performance art, and every sentence ends with, “You understand where I’m coming from, man?” A place deep in the backcountry where people hiked in ten miles to take off their clothes and sit in hot water, well, somehow seemed so California. So, we packed up the green tea and incense and headed out one fine autumn morning.
The journey to Sykes begins at the Big Sur Forest Service Station in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, about a 45-minute drive from Carmel traveling south on Hwy. 1. Overnight hikers must check in at the ranger station for a backcountry pass and pay $2 for parking .
The Pine Ridge trailhead is at the end of the parking lot. This well-worn but well maintained trail would lead us the entire 10 miles to our destination. The trail begins steadily rising through a thick forest of coastal redwood, pine and live oak, and winds around a large campground. After about two miles of steady climbing we came to the top of a ridge which provided our last view of RV and rental-car-laden Hwy 1, and of the limitless Pacific Ocean beyond. From here, we turned due east and headed out of the state park and into the Ventana Wilderness. The trail twisted and undulated, rising and falling dozens of times, climbing high onto arid, sun-drenched ridges and then down into cool mini-canyons housing the crystal clear Big Sur River.
Nestled in a steep canyon, the campsites at Sykes are amply spaced along the Big Sur River. Each campsite consists of a crude stone fire ring and a tent space. The deluxe sites come complete with their own emerald-green swimming hole. While selecting a campsite, we had passed several other campers. But once settled, we felt amazingly isolated, alone in our own little pristine garden of Eden.
Hot and swollen from the hike, we shed our packs and headed down the short path to our own little swimming hole. We stripped off sweaty socks, shirts and shorts and dove into the frigid water. About ten seconds was all I needed to fully rejuvenate. After a dip, we sunned ourselves like lizards atop sun-baked boulders, watching tiny trout dart about in the stream and listening to the soothing babble of the water.
After setting up camp, we headed upstream on a crude trail that led to the hot springs. Dripping from the granite wall above, the natural sulfur hot springs feed five hand-built hot tubs crudely constructed of river rock and sandbags. Being a popular backpacking destination, we were not alone. Two other couples and one single man were enjoying the hot tubs. Everyone seemed friendly, but quiet and respectful. And everyone was naked. We stripped down, too, and slipped into our private tub.
Nothing could have felt more natural then that moment, being 10 ten miles away from the nearest road, car or phone. We relaxed in the tub, and when it got too hot, we dipped into the ice cold river, shuddering with the physical shock of the extreme temperature change. “It makes you feel very alive,” commented one bather, who was meditating in full lotus position atop a boulder above us. Indeed, it did make me feel very alive, but it also made me feel very Californian. The peaceful, serene feeling that comes with being in the mountains coupled with the healing power of the water overcame me. Out here, conversation hardly seemed necessary; trivial, in fact. This was a place just to be. Not to talk, not to think or even feel. Just be. Living in the moment, for the moment was easy here.
As the sunlight faded, we struggled back in to our clothing, with a new revelation of how uncomfortable they can be, and shuffled back to camp. Feeling thoroughly cleansed, body and soul, I crawled into the tent and slept like a rock. My surroundings – the springs, the river, the trees, the mountains – filled me with a power and a serenity that I continued to sense weeks later.
Story and photos by Laurel Chesky