Naked people are a traditional part of the scenery at Sykes Camp
It’s amazing how much fuss people make over a small spring that’s barely warm — but thanks to this spring, Sykes Camp is far and away the most heavily used camp in the Ventana Wilderness. The camp proper is on a large, redwood shaded flat adjacent to the Pine Ridge Trail’s crossing of the Big Sur River, but various well-developed campsites extend far downstream to the site of the warm springs and beyond. Although locals tend to detest the place, it remains the only Ventana destination that most non-locals have ever heard of.
It can’t be denied that Sykes is endowed with many natural charms, yet decades of heavy use have left it pretty worn. This problem is made more acute by the fact that the steep canyon walls confine the human visitors to very narrow strips of real estate along the banks of the river — and between fire rings, tromping feet, clearings for tents, garbage dumps and human excrement, this zone takes a tremendous beating. It may be heavily forested, but don’t expect to find much firewood here!
Sykes is also noted for attracting a lot of people who don’t seem to have ever spent a night away from their televisions before, so really astonishing displays of bad judgment and outdoors ineptitude are common. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to help your neighbors (and you will have plenty of neighbors) perform simple tasks like lighting a stove or pitching a tent. You might consider bringing extra food for the people who will, inevitably, have managed to drop theirs in the river or in the fire. Be especially careful to bring extra food if those people might include you.
Nearly everyone gets to Sykes by heading up the Pine Ridge Trail from Big Sur. It’s actually a little less than 10 miles (as carefully measured by the Sierra Club with a wheel), but as there’s a lot of up and down, almost everyone swears it’s much further. Those unused to doing much walking (a category which includes a large percentage of Sykes visitors) often use terms like “death march” and “gruel-a-thon” to describe this journey and many a first introduction to the Wilderness and many a budding romance have been soured by a footsore trudge along this trail.
You have been warned.
I remember coming out of Sykes in ’74 with a couple of gal pals, stopping at the gallery where a parked fire engine was warming up to leave. What’s up? “A Fire in the backcountry” Oh, no!
But as we stopped at Deetjen’s for a bowl of soup, we could sense that a big fire was coming on. We made our way south to SLO, we looked back and saw the towering smoke plumes and grey skies. Oh, no indeed.
I’d read about Sykes in Great Hot Springs of the West, and we’d decided to try it. It was butt-kick, unlike our Sequoia hikes which were up, then down. The up-and-downs weren’t as bad, though, as the yellowjackets stirred up by someone’s dog that attacked us on a steep hillside. The small warm pool was dissapointing, and the company a little spooky, but the country was magnificent. Brought back memories of childhood spent camping at the state park and finding swimming holes on the river.
Definitely not a hike for beginners, unless they train for it first. Load a pack with canned goods and do forced marches up and down the high school bleachers every day for two weeks. Put up your tent in the front yard, sleep overnight in it and clean it when you take it down. Buy or borrow a reliable cookstove and cook two or three meals on it before the hike. Wash up with biodegradble soap only. No bathing in the creek. And pack out your trash!