Up for a 10-mile hike with a rewarding soak at the end of it? While some say the sizes of these pools and their popularity are a downer, if you take the journey as a whole, it makes for a breathtaking adventure! Let the sound of the hot mineral water trickling out of the rock face and into your pool soothe your trail-worn body and mind. Then think of a river-chilled beer, a warm meal, a cozy tent to crash in, and the stars overhead! This is Sykes Hot Springs.
|Address||Big Sur, California, 93920|
|Location||Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, California|
|Road Access||10-mile hike from the parking area, well-marked trail|
|Water Temperature||Up to 100°F|
|Admission||FREE. Parking $10/day/vehicle|
What To Expect
Sykes Hot Springs is a beautiful steep, two-pool hot sulfur water cascade on the side of a canyon near Big Sur, California, at the bottom of which runs the Big Sur River, where you’ll find another hot mineral pool kept in place by an adjustable wall of rocks.
This 30-mile 11-hour round-trip trail is ideal for an overnight stay in any of the numerous wilderness campsites, though some visitors do make a day trip out of it.
It’s generally considered a challenging route due to the ups and downs and last-leg steep ascent (around a 1700-foot elevation gain) and hot sun which beats down on you on those exposed ridges. You’ll pass some incredible sights to make the sweat and pain worthwhile, though – including Coast Redwoods, mountain views, and stepping-stones to take you across the trout-filled creek. What we love about this trail are the “milestones” that give you a sense of achievement along the way each time you reach the next one – and every few miles or so, you have another campsite, helping you pace yourself, and it means you can extend your stay as long as you want. The trail is easy to follow, apart from one tricky spot (scroll down for more on that), and no maps are needed.
If you’re seeking solitude, head there in the early morning on a weekday, or stay awhile and get up early for a sunrise soak or late for the evening quiet. Get there early enough and the only ones you’ll be sharing the hot springs with are the birds!
The pools fit 3 – 5 people sitting with the water to chest height, so there might be some turn-taking needed. You can keep busy by cooling off in the river.
Did you know the Coast Redwood (Sequoia Semperviren) tree takes up to 500 years to mature and can grow up to 300 ft tall?
Sykes is nestled deep in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, a 234,000-acre area that has had “protected” status since 1969. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot of the Big Sur Forest Service Station. The Pine Ridge Trail will lead you to Sykes Hot Springs, which reached peak popularity with the hippies in the 1960s, and today draws large crowds of backpackers and locals alike, particularly on the weekends and holidays, all seeking to enjoy the beautiful canyons, forest and hot mineral waters.
Pine Ridge Trail is marked by a wonderful variety of greenery – from those Redwoods we mentioned to chaparral, pine, and oak, with a scattering of maple and sycamore. Depending on the season, you’ll probably see a fair few salamanders, and soaring overhead California Condors, a success story from an in-captivity local breeding program that brought them back from the edge of extinction.
Make sure you don’t spend all your time gazing up and outwards though, as poison oak and ticks are a hazard on this trail – stay away from overhanging leaves wherever possible, and check yourself for ticks every 10-15 minutes. Pants come highly recommended!
The trail is well-marked and involves crossing the creek on stones, and is narrow in parts and very steep in others. It’s certainly a thirst-inducing trail but comes with a filter and the river water will keep you refreshed at all times of the year.
The best time to visit is summer and autumn, though you’ll definitely need sunscreen and a sunhat. Winter and spring are the wettest months and promise fog, rain, and a potentially treacherous river. California has 16 climate zones, and this is a damp, cool region. The Big Sur area averages 57°F.
These hot springs were used for warmth, bathing, and healing by the Esselen nation, the first people who made this area home. 6000 years on, their modern ancestors continue to live in the area.
Over time, there have been heavy storms, flood-making rains, and wilderness fires that again and again damaged or even destroyed the trail and hot spring pools. The human factor is also sadly impactful. The US Forest Service has in the past closed the trail and restored it before reopening.
When part of the Pine Ridge Trail and man-made Sykes Hot Springs were washed out in the storms of 2017, the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance grabbed the opportunity to clear it out and revert the riverside location to its natural state. Since 2021, however, eager hot soakers have rebuilt the hot spring pools, and the authorities are now resigned to it.
How To Get There
From San Jose (2 hours, 47 minutes), take the US-101 S. At Prunedale, take Exit 336 onto the CA-156 W. Join the CA-1 S and head down the coast until you get to the Big Sur Forest Service Station (Coast Ridge Road).
If you’re heading north from Southern California, take the US-101 N and US-1 N until you hit Coast Ridge Road and the Big Sur Forest Service Station.
Please self-register at the Big Sur Forest Service Station trailhead so the forest service knows who is out in the wilds.
Parking at Big Sur Station costs $10 per day. If no one is manning the pay station, put your cash in an envelope, rip the permit off the envelope, and place the envelope in a wooden box. The permit has two parts- one to put on your dash, and the other to keep with you on your hike.
From the Big Sur Forest Service Station, you’ll start out on a relatively easy path that parallels the highway. A mile in, you’ll start a 1200-foot ascent up a giant canyon eroded over the millenia by the Big Sur River. Take as many breaks (let’s call them “photo stops”) as you need- the views are worth taking a few moments for, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and mountain peaks to the east.
The next 7 miles will have you on a narrow trail with a steep drop. You’ll pass a couple of nice campgrounds too, in this part. At Barlow Flat Camp, some travelers have been getting turned around. You will need to cross Logwood Creek then cross the Big Sur River (there are stepping stones), go forward then swing a right and re-cross the river. The trail from there on should be clear. At Mile 8, it’s up again with 200+ m of steep, exposed, very tough elevation gain. The last mile to the Big Sur River is all downhill, though. Once you get there, you’ll find nice campsites in both directions (Sykes Camp is upstream, and we recommend heading further upstream than even that for those wanting to avoid the crowds).
The hot springs are about 0.5 miles downstream from the trail and this is where water sandals come in handy, as you’ll need to cross the river. The riverside pools are easy to spot, and some 20 feet up the hill, you’ll find the hotter pools surrounded by fallen trees and luscious greenery. Remember – Sykes Hot Springs is clothing optional, so expect to see nudity!
Can I Stay There?
There are four wilderness campsites on the way to Sykes Hot Springs, all of them on or just off the Pine Ridge Trail. The first you’ll come across is at around Mile 4, called Ventana Camp. Next is Terrace Creek Camp a mile further on. Barlow Flat Camp (7 miles from the trailhead) is a good one to choose if you want space, quiet time and to avoid the crowds. You can set up here and then walk the last few miles to the hot springs pack-free. Sykes Camp is the most popular campsite because it is just 600 meters from the hot springs (and has its own Thunderbox), but it only has seven sites, which can fill up quickly in summer. Beyond the hot springs is a fifth campground, called Redwood Camp, which is at Mile 12 from the trailhead.
Get a campfire or camp stove permit here and bring a flashlight or headlamp if you’re planning to soak after sunset.
If the trail campgrounds are full, you can stay at other campgrounds in Big Sur, though you may need to reserve months in advance due to their popularity – check out Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Ventana Campground, or Saddle Mountain Ranch.
Ventana Campground is a tent-only campground with two modern bathhouses, a picnic table and fire ring on each site, and water faucets a short walk away. The campground is located near general stores, restaurants, cafes, gift shops, delis, and taverns.
Saddle Mountain Ranch offers tent, RV, and trailer sites as well as cabins and a bunk house.
There are restaurants and cafes on Highway 1.
What Else Can I Do In The Area?
With nearly 100 miles of Pacific coastline to the west and the St. Lucia mountain range to the east, Big Sur is a nirvana for nature lovers – from peaks to hike and sandy beaches to dig in, redwood groves to explore and falls to photograph, there’s no such thing as boredom in Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, wrapped around the Big Sur River, offers the popular hiking trails “Valley View and Pfeiffer Falls” and “Buzzards Roost.” The relatively steep Buzzard’s Roost Trail cuts through the forest of Big Sur to check out the incredible sight of buzzards basking in the sun, with panoramic views of the mountains and ocean beyond. The Gorge Trail, meanwhile, offers a brilliant, short hike to crystal clear pools and giant boulders to laze on. This is a fun swimming hole excursion ideal in the hot summer months. Plan to get wet and dress accordingly!
If it’s more hot springs you seek, head to Travertine Hot Springs (boasting a whopping 115-156°F!) or Buckeye Hot Springs for canyon views. Franklin Hot Springs is a budget-friendly, family-owned hot spring facility in wine country. For those who love a challenge, the day hike to the Sespe Hot Springs in the California wilderness is definitely one for your list, as is Willett Hot Springs, halfway along the same trail through lush Californian forest and golden rocky desert. Montecito Hot Springs is a beautiful cascade of turquoise, rock-walled pools of varying temperatures in a narrow, party-shaded canyon. Also, well-worth your soaking attention are Miracle Hot Springs and Breitenbush Hot Springs.
The hugely popular Sykes Hot Springs is the hot mineral reward you get after an incredible ten-mile hike that takes you on a clearly-marked winding trail through Redwood forest and Big Sur beauty.
The Dos And Don’ts Of Visiting Hot Springs
Every hot springs has its own quirks. Visitors to Sykes Hot Springs, for example, should respect the rules of hiking and camping on a natural route and soak in natural hot springs. You should bring everything you need in terms of food, water filters, and other essentials, and be ready to share the pools. For more general and very important “hot springs etiquette,” we highly recommend you take a moment to check out our carefully compiled easy-to-read list of “dos and don’ts” here. And always, always respect our nature – pack out what you pack in and LEAVE NO TRACE.
Frequently Asked Questions
Sykes Hot Springs is on the Pine Ridge Trail, a popular route in Los Padres National Forest, near Big Sur California, about 2.5 hours south of San Francisco. The trailhead is at Big Sur Station, which is directly off Highway 1 and very easy to find.
From San Jose (2 hours, 47 minutes), take the US-101 S. At Prunedale, take Exit 336 onto the CA-156 W. Join the CA-1 S and head down the coast until you get to the Big Sur Forest Service Station (Coast Ridge Road)
The answer to that question depends on your fitness level. There are two steep uphills on this hike, of around a total 1700 m elevation gain, and in the heights of summer, it can be a killer. Dress and hydrate accordingly, take your time, and consider camping overnight to make the trip more relaxing and enjoyable.
Yes, but you should keep your dog on a leash.
While we at Traxplorio do our very best to give you the latest information about these hot springs sites, life happens, weather happens, and property owners happen. We always recommend you go to the official hot springs’ web page and/or the relevant state authority page to check conditions, times, and prices (where relevant) before you head out. Thanks for understanding, and enjoy your soak!