In my wanderings, I have rarely lingered in Big Sur. I have
taken a few short walks to the ocean along well trod paths, but I
know nearly nothing about Big Sur that can’t be seen from Highway
In my wanderings, I have rarely lingered in Big Sur. I have taken a few short walks to the ocean along well trod paths, but I know nearly nothing about Big Sur that can’t be seen from Highway 1. A good friend of mine, Larry Haimowitz, has visited the Big Sur backcountry and the Ventana Wilderness many times and knows it well. Last weekend, we went for a day hike there and saw the country that lies beyond the roadside.
South of Carmel, Highway 1 is etched into the sea side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the range that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Salinas Valley. These steep and rugged mountains dive dramatically into the Pacific leaving dizzying views for motorists and steep terrain for hikers.
Twenty-six miles south of Carmel, just past the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we reached Big Sur Station, a well developed multi-agency facility that is the gateway to the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur River. We paid the $5 day-use fee and set out.
Trails that pierce the imposing façade of the Santa Lucia Mountains generally follow rivers and creeks that have cut a network of deep and narrow canyons. Our walk was along the Pine Ridge Trail that traces the path of the Big Sur River. When you hike with Larry, bring your stamina. Our destination was Sykes Hot Springs, 10 miles up the river.
The first couple miles of the trail climb well above the river and then levels off, contouring across the slope and following the river’s path. I quickly noticed the variety of habitats created by such steep canyons. We walked on the north side of the ridge through a lovely cool forest of redwoods while just across the river was a treeless sun-parched mountain covered in chaparral.
This trail must be a succession of wonders after the winter rains. As we walked across the pleated slope, we crossed many seasonal creeks that empty into the Big Sur River below. Some of these have rocky slopes that rise steeply overhead. Add a little water, and you have an impressive waterfall. Bring a rain shell if you come in winter.
I had anticipated that the steep wall created by these mountains would quickly push us higher, but the Big Sur River cuts a long and fairly gentle swath far into them. Around an early bend into the trail, Ventana Double Cone (4,846 feet) appears far upstream. Looking like some Sierra peak, these twin bare granite peaks are a lovely sight and quite a surprise.
Finally … finally, the trail dropped down to meet the Big Sur River at Sykes Hot Springs. The river was resting here for the noisy tumble ahead. We left the trail and followed the river upstream past lovely sandy pools collecting yellow maple leaves. Sadly, we were not sure where the hot springs was and never found it. I have since learned that it is about a quarter mile down stream and not hard to find.
Ventana Wilderness is 167,323 acres with 237 miles of trails and 55 designated backpack camp sites. A quick look at the map at the Big Sur Station parking area lets you know that our choice of the Pine Ridge Trail is only one of many options to explore at Big Sur.
It’s a long day to Sykes Hot Springs and back. I think it was about the 16-mile mark that I started wanting my mommy, but you needn’t go that far for a fine day hike. Get past the initial climb, and you will enjoy a splendid variety of sights.