Sykes Camp, on the banks of the Big Sur River, has a little bit of everything--morning sun, afternoon shade, a deep swimming hole and hot springs. The camp is a 10-mile journey from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and one of California's classic weekend backpacking trips.
Sykes' charms are undeniable, but seekers of solitude should steer clear on weekends during the summer months. Rangers estimate that during some years, about 75% of the back-country use in the Monterey District of Los Padres National Forest occurs along the 10 miles of trail from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Sykes.
The state park itself is tiny (1 1/4 square miles), but is nevertheless a very popular destination with campers.
If you like to swim, Ventana Camp has some excellent swimming holes. It's a 10-mile round-trip day hike to reach the camp.
Hikers also enjoy the short Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which meanders past some of the park's finest redwoods on its way to the park's only significant waterfall.
Pine Ridge Trail begins in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which to most visitors is synonymous with Big Sur. South of the park is the Big Sur Post Office, the deluxe Ventana Inn, the Big Sur Inn and Nepenthe, a restaurant with breathtaking coastal views. North of the park are a number of private campgrounds and motels.
Though Pine Ridge Trail begins on state park land, it soon enters the Ventana Wilderness, which is administered by Los Padres National Forest. Ventana means "window" in Spanish, but it's unclear why the Spaniards left this name on the land. Hikers might speculate that Big Sur's trails offer a window on the world--a view of skyscraping peaks and the wide Pacific . . . when the foggy curtain parts, that is.
Directions to trail head: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is about 26 miles south of Carmel on California 1. The trail head for Pine Ridge Trail is about a mile south of the park entrance at a wide turnout on the east side of the highway. Note the construction site nearby: The building going up, scheduled to be completed next year, is called the Big Sur Multi-Agency Facility, and will contain Caltrans, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service when construction is completed next year. When that happens, information about Big Sur should be easier to obtain. Next year, Pine Ridge Trail hikers can expect a better trail head and some slight rerouting of the first part of the trail.
The hike: Leaving the highway behind, Pine Ridge Trail marches up redwood-shaded slopes above Big Sur Campground. Mt. Manuel dominates the northern skyline, while glimpses of the Pacific can be seen behind you.
The trail passes through a tanbark oak forest, enters the Ventana Wilderness and offers westward views of the Big Sur River. After about four miles of dipping and climbing, the trail reaches a junction with a side trail leading to Ventana Camp, 1 1/4 miles north. For a walk of slightly more than 10 miles round trip, take the trail to Ventana Camp, located near the convergence of Ventana Creek and the Big Sur River. In 1968, the camp achieved national notoriety when the U.S. Forest Service closed it for a time due to the so-called "hippie problem." Near the camp is a great swimming hole.
After lunch and a swim, return to the trail head. Pine Ridge Trail continues east for a mile to another side trail. This one leads a short distance to redwood-shaded Terrace Creek Camp, another destination that would make an ideal lunch stop/turnaround point for a day hike.
Pine Ridge Trail crosses Terrace Creek, ascends through woodland, descends a hill, crosses Logwood Creek and arrives at Barlow Flat. This flat, expansive camp is on the north side of the Big Sur River, in the shade of redwoods. Great swimming and sunbathing here. Leaving Barlow Flat, the trail stays below the river for another three miles until it reaches Sykes Camp.
A quarter-mile downriver, via some wading and a side trail, is Sykes Hot Springs, which includes a couple of hot seeps dammed to create small pools, as well as a big 10-foot-long, rock-lined pool. You'll enjoy basking in the 100-degree waters and gazing up at the night sky.
Two more miles of steep, uphill travel on the Pine Ridge Trail will bring you to Redwood Creek Camp, which has several tent sites. It's a rarely visited alternative to Sykes Camp.
Where: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Ventana Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest. Distance: Big Sur Station to Ventana Camp Junction, 4 1/4 miles one way, with 1,100-foot elevation gain; to Barlow Flat, 7 miles; to Sykes Camp, 10 miles; to Redwood Creek Camp, 12 miles, with 1,400-foot gain. Terrain: Steep, redwood shaded slopes and canyons of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Moderate to strenuous. Highlights: Beautiful trail explores the heart of Big Sur; a hot springs welcomes hardy hikers. Precautions: River water should be purified before drinking. Some hot springs visitors may be loud and discourteous; not the best place to bring children. For more information: Contact Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District, 406 S. Mildred Ave., King City, Calif. 93930, (408) 385-5434 (Monday-Friday). On weekends, call Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at (408) 667-2423.