We’ve noticed over the past few weeks that this site has started receiving traffic from people using variations of the phrase “How to sneak into Sykes Hot Springs” as search terms. Since we have not, until now, provided any information on that subject, those people have, no doubt, found their visits here disappointing.
Sykes, for those who haven’t been, is a series of lukewarm seeps on the banks of the Big Sur River, deep inside the Ventana Wilderness. The existence of this nominally hot water has long made Sykes vastly more popular than any other Ventana Wilderness destination.
When the Pine Ridge Trail from Big Sur Station is in service, it’s not unusual to find more than a hundred campers crammed together on the narrow flats between the river and the canyon walls. Trash and human excrement pile up in vast quantities, making living conditions squalid and unsanitary and, as every group of campers must have a fire, competition for firewood is intense. As a result, the surrounding area is essentially devoid of down wood – which at least lowers the danger of fires escaping.
But the Pine Ridge Trail is not currently in service. It’s been off-limits since a large portion of the Ventana Wilderness was ordered closed during the 2016 Soberanes Fire. While most of the Wilderness reopened recently, the Pine Ridge Trail and the camps and subsidiary trails along it – including Sykes – remain closed from Big Sur Station to the Big Sur Trail junction (well beyond Sykes).
While it’s hard to justify the unprecedented and unreasonably lengthy closure of so much of the rest of the Ventana Wilderness, the closure of this portion of the Pine Ridge Trail is easy to justify. Portions of the trail have slid away leaving virtually impassible cliffs.
If the trail and camps remained open, large numbers of people would attempt to by-pass the wash outs by crashing off into the woods in search of alternate routes. When a few people take cross country routes, it isn’t a big deal, but when hundreds do, it’s another story. The result would be a criss-crossing network of un-engineered and erosion prone “use trails,” and a general trampling of what, in spite of its rugged appearance, is actually sensitive and easily damaged habitat.
There would also, of course, be an increased danger of people getting lost and hurt. But as this is a WILDERNESS AREA, which it is no one’s job to make safe for the public and, in which, all adults should be free to make their OWN DECISIONS (however uninformed or bad) about the level of risk they’re willing to accept, “public safety” remains an exceptionally weak reason for this, or any, wilderness closure.
So here’s my advice on sneaking into Sykes:
If you’re searching online for instructions and tips, you’re wasting your time. There is currently no way to get to Sykes that is easy enough for you. If you knew enough about the Ventana Wilderness, or wilderness travel in general, to make it feasible, you would already know what to do and wouldn’t be online looking for pointers. You would, in fact, know enough to know that there are plenty of better places to go.
The Forest Service and Ventana Wilderness Alliance volunteers will no doubt be breaking their behinds to get a nice comfortable trail built for you in the months to come. Until that’s finished, go party somewhere else.
And, while you’re waiting, take the time to learn something about Leave No Trace camping. Maybe when Sykes reopens we can start treating it with the respect that it deserves.
Agree with Jack, over used and abused for decades, time to give it a well deserved and long overdue break from use.
Many years ago I wrote a letter to the local USFS office in King City about the human excrement at Sykes. In that letter I conveyed my estimate of the number of piles of shit at Sykes during a major holiday (e.g., Memorial Day weekend) and expressed my concern about the impact this has on human health and the environment of the Los Padres wilderness – I wanted permanent toilets. Based on there being 30 people at Sykes during the Memorial Day holiday and these visitors being on site for three days and two nights, I estimated 90 piles of shit deposited. When you account for the non-holiday summer-time traffic of perhaps 10 persons average per night at Sykes, the math adds up quickly, so that by Labor Day there are an additional 1,000 piles of shit. When you account for Labor Day, you add another 100 piles of shit. Therefore, between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend there are approximately 1,200 piles of shit. at Sykes! If you have been to Sykes you will know what I am talking about – behind every tree (where you will find the only flat spot besides the Pine Ridge Trail) there is a pile of shit. Add to this the hundreds of gallons of piss deposited and you get serious environmental damage. The USFS ignores the situation and looks the other way. What it boils down to is gross negligence and incompetence by the USFS and the U.S. Congress that funds the USFS.
Thanks Keith for telling it like it is! Or at least as it should be.
Much of the problem that the USFS has with providing facilities come from a continued underfunding of the agency combined with increased and poorly regulated use of the Ventana Wilderness.
Backpacking in the pre-wilderness area in the 1960’s most of what is now the “Wilderness” had weekly and biweekly horse patrols by USFS personnel. The rangers maintained trails, had educational interactions with campers and keep what built structures there were at that time maintained. Budget cuts and a shift in priorities led the the demise of the horse patrols and the rangers shifted to more time at the wheel of a pickup truck or desk.
Jeff Norman was one of the last USFS horse patrols. I was his USFS supervisor in 1977. Jeff once confronted a Sykes camper who had a dangerous fire near the hillside brush and resisted Jeff. I was called by radio to assist and rode in by horse and cited the guy (while Jeff’s mule peed on his tent.) The camper appealed, we had to appear in SF Federal court where the judge reprimanded the camper and fined him $120.
Sykes is in long need of a long rest. Plenty of other places to visit with your leave no trace skills and practices. After the 2008 fire, I was disappointed that the Forest Service open the trail so soon after.
Great story I knew Jeff, he was a great steward for the Ventana and sounds like you were as well. What exactly happened to the horse patrols? Was it a gradual phase out or?
By 1980, when I left USFS to join the Big Sur Land Trust, USFS had done away with the paid trail crews and horse patrolmen. I remember talking with the Los Padres bosses in Goleta who confirmed the next year’s budget had $600,000 for forest planning, but $0 for trail work and patrols.
USFS was betting on volunteers stepping up to do the work and they have to a large extent thanks to VWA and a couple other groups.
Nonetheless, a visible USFS presence in the Ventana would be welcome in my opinion.
Brian, I completely agree having USFS personnel out of the office and interacting with the public on public land has numerous benefits. Is has been insidious the continuous lack of funding for trail work and patrols. It is great that so many people are willing to help with volunteer efforts. I feel that the volunteer effort is a long term disservice in some ways as it puts a bandaid and or masks the lack of funding for portions of the public lands budget.
Hahaha..proceed from cienega camp down the gutter until you get there?
Dear Alladin, Thank you for the info. I am curious how one can get from Cienega to Sykes. I know a few ways to get to Sykes (and I have done all of them), but not this one.
Dear author of the post,
Your write: “There is currently no way to get to Sykes that is easy enough for you”
I am curious if you are aware of any not-easy, but legal ways to get there.BTW, I totally agree that here is nothing to do there: at the best of my knowledge all the pools are gone and the place is guarded by bees.
The trail to Sykes from the Ranger Station is passable. Not sure why people feel entitled to spreading misinformation about the hot spring.
This is an awesome post…
I’ve never been to Sykes, nor have I been to any of the hot springs on the central coast. I grew up in the central valley but didn’t do much in the area around Monterey other than go to the Historics & surf in Santa Cruz.
Frankly, the areas that I knew that had hot springs were too expensive, a bit too exclusive or dogmatic (not that I didn’t agree or appreciate, but that I would have just wanted to enjoy a soak in a natural environment).
Now, living “east” a ways, I’m coming back to California for a vacation and will be with my teen son who loves soaking in hot tubs (and caves)…
Not overly adventurous, but wondering if any suggestions for a soak in a beautiful area, without spending so much that I end up twitching from the bill (and end up not enjoying the experience so much).
On May 13, 2018 at 10:09 am, Eric said: “The trail to Sykes from the Ranger Station is passable. Not sure why people feel entitled to spreading misinformation about the hot spring.’
I wish I could post a photo of the trail blowout between Barlow and Sykes where the trail is GONE and it is a sheep drop to the river. Some folks would turn back. Others would try and make it. Still others would try and get badly injured. Doesn’t seem very responsible to encourge folks to go.
Have you even been there, dude, or are you just a troll?
Hey ghost, I gave you the route…proceed to cienega camp then go downhill, down to the Big Sur river then walk the river down to Sykes. cienega “camp” is along the BigSur Trail… I didn’t say it would be easy
I have a better idea for the Summer !
Proceed from Julia Pfeiffer campground up the big sur river to Sykes !
This will be a fantastic experience. After getting past the initial obstacle just upstream of the Pfeiffer campground you can rockhop/walk to well past Barlow Flats campground on your way to Sykes. Upstream of Barlow Flat you may run into a deep portion of the big sur river, for that you should bring a flotation device to float your pack for about 50ft while you swim alongside it. Expect to encounter vast amounts of poison oak, and the Ventana camp and the remnants of the old Dam near Doolans Creek.
Thank you so much for your tips and honest advice on the team of Sneak to the Hot Spring. Yes, I agree with you about keeping the environment, safety, and protection our planet. So all of us will enjoy the nature together.
Just some update: Since it’s closure I have sneaked there twice. Both times walking up the Big Sur River. The first time the lower pools were completely destroyed by the river. The upper pool was nearly intact. It took me 1 hour to clean it.
The second time ~Jun 2018, the upper pool was totally dismantled. Likely by rangers. The entire area was cleanly leveled, so it does not show any human trace. It was very sad picture, though beautiful.
Mike Heard, no – not a troll. I think the rangers conspired to keep it closed so that they could destroy the pools. There’s a lot of scrambling required to get to a lot of the goods in the Ventana Wilderness. I appreciate your work but we don’t all need fabulous trails to access Sykes. Anyone accustomed to Class 3 and 4 scrambling shouldn’t have an issue getting to Sykes via PRT from Hwy 1.
I will say: I believe going to Sykes by going up the Big Sur River from the Pfeiffer Campground is more dangerous than going up the closed trail. Suggesting taking the river should be met with greater criticism than sneaking in via PRT from Hwy 1. Depending on the flow, that river has legitimate rapids and a bunch of sivs and streamers to get entrapped in. If you don’t have experience with whitewater rescue don’t bother. A lot of it is pretty gentle but depending on new slides and trees, a lot can change. Some of the swims and log jams are ridiculous. I’ve seen a dam of redwoods one year that was gone the next. I think a mile of that is harder than the entire PRT from Hwy 1 to Sykes. I think that anyone with whitewater and mountaineering experience would agree. I never saw the trail to Dutra Flat, Cruikshank, or Alder Creek camp closed due to slides and I don’t think it should be any different with PRT. In case anyone forgot: it’s Wilderness with a capital “W”. The pools at Sykes predate the Wild & Scenic River designation and like many other man made structures on every other Wild & Scenic River – they deserve to stay. I think it’s shameful to suggest the river is a better option than PRT.
I have made my annual visit to Sykes. The place is clean and beautiful. There is some activity at the upper pool, where some stones were placed. Hopefully the rangers won’t destroy it anymore. I still consider it shameful destroying the upper pools: there was no reason to do so.
You may have a point about structures in the wilderness, sometimes they are allowed. I can think of a bridge accross Woods Creek in the Kings Canyon National park and the “Muir Hut” also in Kings Canyon. There is also the ubiquitous Camp Table throughout the Wilderness.
Thanks for this! As a local, having hundreds of squatters in my backyard while they leave damage in their wake is vexing to say the least!