If you’re looking for an adventurous weekend backpacking experience to a secluded hot spring, you’ll want to visit Sykes Hot Spring in Big Sur. The trailhead is a couple of hours south of San Francisco and the Bay Area; these hot springs reopened in April 2021 after five years of closure, prompting mixed reactions. One thing is true; these springs are undoubtedly one of the natural treasures of California.
Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur
Located approximately 30 miles south of Monterey, California, Sykes Hot Springs is remotely located in Big Sur. These are the only natural hot springs in Big Sur not fenced within an expensive resort like Esalen Hot Springs. There are three hot spring pools, and the temperature is 100°F degrees. The temperatures may differ depending on the time of the year, as they are fed by natural underground springs.
However, you’ll have to work for it. Sykes requires a long, strenuous hike, and you’ll want to backpack in. If you don’t want to hike to a hot spring, you can drive to roadside springs like Buckeye or Travertine Hot Springs.
Best Time to Visit Sykes Hot Springs
To avoid rain, fog, and crowds, visit these springs after Labor Day and before Thanksgiving. Campsites are filled during summer weekends, so if you’re visiting between June and early September, it’s best to visit on a weekday.
While you can visit during the winter and spring, these are the wettest months. If you’re not hiking in the fog or rain, you may have to cross a bulging, treacherous river. Remember that California has 16 climate zones, and this is a damp, cool region; Big Sur averages 57°F.
Camping Near Sykes
There are four wilderness campsites on the way to Sykes Hot Springs along the Pine Ridge Trail (also listed here). The first is Ventana Camp (over 4 miles from the trailhead), the second is Terrace Creek Camp (5 miles from the trailhead), the third is Barlow Flat Camp (7 miles from the trailhead), and the fourth is Sykes Camp (9 miles from the trailhead). Sykes Camp is the most popular and visited campsite because it is located next to the hot springs. It has seven sites. However, if it’s a busy time, the Barlow Flat Camp has the most available sites. You can also stay beyond the hot springs at a fifth campground, Redwood Camp (12 miles from the trailhead).
You cannot make a reservation at the campsites, so this is first-come, first-served. Parking fees are $10 per day at Big Sur Station, but the wilderness camping itself is free. There is no water, you’ll need to poop in the woods and take out your trash. Campfires and camp stoves are prohibited so you won’t be able to cook your food.
Other Accommodation Options
If the backcountry campgrounds are full, you can stay at nearby campgrounds in Big Sur. However, most of these are so popular you’ll need to reserve months in advance, even if you’re camping there during the off-season. For instance, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground is a delightful state park, but you’ll want to plan your summer trip in January.
If you’re looking at more available camping options, you can stay at the nearby Hyatt-owned Ventana Campground starting at $80 a night or Saddle Mountain Ranch, a private campground in Carmel starting at $60 a night. There are restaurants and cafes on Highway 1.
History of Sykes Hot Springs
Indigenous people local to the Big Sur used these hot springs. These hot springs were spaces for warmth, healing, and bathing. The Esselen nation, the first people of this land, continue to live in the area as they have for over 6,000 years and recently purchased back part of their homeland in Big Sur.
Historically, the springs have been so popular that people have littered and over-visited them. In addition, there were heavy storm rains and wilderness fires that destroyed the trail and hot spring pools. The U.S. Forest Service closed the trail and restored it before reopening it.
Directions to Sykes Hot Springs
Sykes Hot Springs is wilderness camping, so you cannot drive to it. You can drive to the trailhead, and from there you’ll need to hike for several hours. The trailhead is located at Big Sur Station, a 2.5-hour drive from San Francisco and a 5-hour drive from Los Angeles.
Driving Directions to the Big Sur Station
From San Francisco or San Jose, drive the 101 South and 1 South freeways for 100 to 150 miles long, approximately a couple of hours. If you are traveling north from Southern California, you’ll take the 101 North and 1 North freeways for approximately 300 miles or five hours.
Hiking Directions to Sykes Hot Springs
Hiking to Sykes Hot Springs from Big Sur Station is strenuous, with a lot of elevation gain and loss. The trail will be challenging with water crossings, fallen trees, poison oak, and potential bear encounters. This trail can be exposed so you’ll want to start as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day.
It is over nine miles to Sykes Camp and approximately 19 miles round-trip. If you’re prepared for the long day of hiking, you can accomplish this visit in a day. However, this trail is better for backpacking. Most people will take six to eight hours hiking one way to the hot springs.
Nudity and Hot Springs
Like most hot springs, Sykes is a clothing-optional location. However, nudity is never mandatory, and some visitors will wear their swimsuits.
Trash, Toilets, and Other Considerations
There is concern that the trail will become over-visited and trashed again. As a result, you must bring trash bags and take out your trash. For goodwill, consider taking out others’ trash too.
And if you’re new to backpacking, you should study how to properly poop in the woods. Don’t forget your bidet!
There is also concern about another wildfire. As of mid-2021, campfires AND camp stoves are prohibited, so you’ll need to eat your food cold. If you’ve never done this, read this excellent overview of cold-soaking.
Finally, always bring water to drink, as sitting in hot springs can dehydrate you. A water filter is also necessary to make sure you’re drinking clean water from the stream.
Sykes Hot Springs Soak Stats
Season: Summer, Fall
Type: Hike, Backpack
Hot Springs GPS: 36.252379680660795, -121.69011718398602
Trailhead GPS: 36.24651215318476, -121.78031744481167
Federal Land: Los Padres National Forest; Ventana Wilderness
Elevation: 1,080 Feet (330 Meters)
Pool Temperature: Up to 100°F degrees
Fees: $10 per day for parking at Big Sur Station; wilderness camping is free
Dogs Allowed: Yes, on a leash
Area Attractions: Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Highway 1
Closest Gas and Food: One mile south in Big Sur on California Highway 1
Wilderness Camping: Sykes Camp, Ventana Camp, Terrace Creek Camp, Barlow Flat Camp, and Redwood Camp
Car-Accessible Camping: Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Ventana Campground, Saddle Mountain Ranch, and more
Clothing Optional: Yes
Pit Toilet: Yes, but limited