Sykes Hot Springs
Location: Ventana Wilderness, Monterey County, CA
Miles: 20 miles
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult
Duration: 2 days
Users: Hikers, dogs, and horses permitted. Mountain bikes not permitted. No wheelchair access.
Features: Coastal views, switchbacks, the Big Sur River, Ventana Camp, Ventana Creek, Terrace Creek Camp, Barlow Flat, Sykes Camp, Sykes Hot Springs, swimming holes
I’ve been hearing about this trail for a while now, and finally decided to give it a try. I’ve also been wanting to take my dogs backpacking, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there aren’t many (or any) great backpacking spots nearby that are also dog-friendly.
The first 4 miles of the Pine Ridge Trail heading towards Sykes Hot Springs is brutal. There is minimal shade, ample poison oak, and it’s almost all uphill. This trail would not be bad with just a small hydration pack, but with our full backpacking backpacks, this trail had us begging for mercy.
Mercy is granted at the junction a little over 4 miles in. If you turn left, it leads to Ventana Camp. If you’re heading to the hot springs, keep going straight! Don’t worry, the trail finally mellows out at this point — more downhill, and plenty of shade!
About 1.5 miles later you will arrive at Ventana Creek. Hikers with dogs — this is the first access to water for 5.5 miles since the parking lot, make sure you bring water for your thirsty pooch! I highly recommend investing in a collapsable dog bowl. I brought a shallow tupperware which held next to no food or water, and was very bulky in my pack. There are a few campsites on this river, or you can turn right towards Terrace Creek Camp.
If you continue towards the hot springs, you will come upon the turnoff for Barlow Flat, at mile 7. This is where we stopped for the night. This campsite is located on the river, with deep enough water to swim in. Make sure you bring a water filter, because you will need to replenish your water bottles and hydration packs. I highly recommend this Katadyn water filter — I borrowed it from a friend and it was the fastest and easiest water filter I’ve ever used.
My friend and I set up camp, fed ourselves and the dogs, and rested for about thirty minutes before heading back out to the Pine Ridge Trail to get to Sykes Hot Springs. We had 3 miles left, and without our heavy packs, we were able to make it to Sykes Camp in about an hour. Once you get to the river, you have to hike through campsites and cross the river twice before you reach the hot springs about a quarter mile out.
There are four pools, the hottest one at about 100˚. We were warned about how busy it might be, since we went on a Saturday. However, when we got there, there was only a total of 6 people in the hot springs. This may be because we didn’t get to the springs till after 9pm though!
The entire two days we were there, I never once felt I was in danger. The only animals we crossed paths with were two dear, and a squirrel. We left our tent door open the entire night (to keep an eye on the dogs!), and I didn’t get a single bug bite. I also felt very safe leaving our bulky camp supplies set up while we were gone for the three hours at the hot springs.
We ended up getting stuck in traffic on the way to the trailhead, and didn’t get hiking until after 3pm. We hiked 7 miles to Barlow Flat, set up camp, then hiked 3 miles to the hot springs, and 3 miles back. We didn’t get to bed until around 11:30pm, and we were exhausted! If you are either using the schedule we did or hike the 10 miles with packs to Sykes Camp, make sure you start the hike in the early to late morning, allowing yourself time for many water and rest breaks.
We met other hikers who had a better plan than us: they hiked 5 miles and set up either at Ventana Creek or Terrace Creek Camp. The next day they left their campsite and heavy gear, and did a day hike to the hot springs, 5 miles each way. The third day ends the trip with a mild 5 mile hike back to the parking lot.
Top 3 Adventure Hacks
1) Bring an all-around tent
That means you bring an ultralight 4-season Silicon tent that could stand different temperatures! You could go camping in either winter, spring, summer, or fall!
2) Plan your trip
Go on a weekday where there is less foot traffic so you can enjoy your dip in one of the 4 pools.
3) Pack the right essentials
If you plan to take this trail and go for a dip, always remember your essential needs! Snacks, drinking water, and a towel to keep you dry.