How to Sneak Into Sykes Hot Springs


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.


11 Responses to How to Sneak Into Sykes Hot Springs

  1. Jack Holmgren says:


  2. Bruce Moffatt says:

    Agree with Jack, over used and abused for decades, time to give it a well deserved and long overdue break from use.

  3. Gayle Forster says:

    Thank you.

  4. oldcapitolbooksmonterey says:

    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.

  5. Lois says:

    Thanks Keith for telling it like it is! Or at least as it should be.

  6. Bruce Moffatt says:

    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.

  7. Brian Steen says:

    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.

  8. Steven Harper says:

    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.

  9. Bruce Moffatt says:

    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?

  10. Brian Steen says:

    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.

  11. Bruce Moffatt says:

    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.

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