Fall Backpacking – Ventana Wilderness

The coastline between Carmel and Big Sur is among the most beautiful places in the entire world.  The ocean views are staggering and the road is an engineering marvel.  Most incredible, the incessant ocean swells continually slam into the partially submerged rocks and send enormous plumes of water heavenward, creating a constantly changing but breathtakingly beautiful, natural fountain.  From the pink glow in the darkening sky, we already know it’s going to be a good weekend for backpacking.

In Northern California, there are only a few good places for backpacking in the Fall (unless you like snow) and the Monterrey area is one of the best.  The area provides hundreds of trails (many overgrown and unmaintained) and lots of scenic views and interesting history.  A huge fire ripped through the Ventana Wilderness area a couple of years back, but the rangers have just reopened the trails to backpackers.  Our group, consisting of four well-traveled Scout Leaders,  is anxious to see the destruction – and especially the rebirth – of the forest.

We arrive at an almost empty Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park after dark and get our pick of first-rate campsites.  The Pine Ridge Trail, which connects with the famous Sykes hot springs, runs a few hundred yards from where we sleep and there is a plan to be on this trail at first light.  (All we have to do is get up before dawn.)  The diligent Park Hosts drop by before breakfast to make sure the $35 camping fee is paid and tell us that Condor sightings are increasingly common along the coast. 

We load Beardsley (the name of our trustworthy Toyota Sequoia) and drive down to Big Sur Station, about a mile south on Highway 1.  Our leader secures a stove permit and confirms the overnight parking rules ($4 per vehicle per night at the trailhead).  Walking away, the Ranger points out three dark images circling high in the sky.  California Condors.  A good omen.

The trail to Sykes is difficult, especially for beginners.  There are very few flat stretches and almost every step is either going up or down a steep hill.  (About 5,000 feet elevation gain and loss over the 23 mile round trip.)  There are few places to pump water.   For much of the way, steep drop-offs (in some places actual cliffs) border the path and because of the fire, much of the trail is damaged or obstructed by fallen trees, especially over the last three miles.  As an added bonus, hikers must cross the Big Sur River right at the end, within site of the small and crowded camping area.  (Bring your water shoes.)  However, the hot springs and party atmosphere are big attractions, so despite the difficulties,  Sykes is always full of young hikers looking for a fun break from their college studies.  (Many bring alcohol to enhance their enjoyment.)

The best place to spend the night is Barlow Flat (8 miles) with a day hike to Sykes (about 3.5 miles each way).  Barlow Flat is nicer than Sykes, quieter, and possessed of more level,  open space for pitching tents.  There is a also great swimming area where the Big Sur River deepens along a sandy turn.  (Big groups can cross the river to find a private meadow that will hold an entire Venture Crew.)  There are even wilderness toilets nearby.

Since it is late in the year, darkness comes early to Barlow Flat.  Our tents are under a grove of tall redwood trees, which block out the moon and most of the stars.  Fires are prohibited.  So we sit in the deepening shadows, increasingly shrouded by the same primordial darkness that you experience in deep caves like Moaning Cavern.  It’s pitch black.  Someone turns on a flashlight to check the time.  Almost 7:30 pm.  The camp stove is soon lit and noisy blue flames provide a small fragment of artificial daylight until the fuel runs out a short time later.  It’s getting cold.  Time to crawl into our sleeping bags until morning.

The hike back to Big Sur Station is spectacular!  Traveling west, we are facing the ocean and see it often, framed against the rugged, green hillsides.  The river roars far below us, and it appears regularly as we move up, down and around on the steep trails.  Even now, in early November, the sun shines brightly and the temperature stays in the mid 60s.  The effects of the fire are noticeable, and in some cases remarkable, but they do not diminish our enjoyment of the experience.  There are few better places for late-season backpacking than Ventana Wilderness.

Many first-time visitors to Sykes cannot find the hot springs because they are so far away from the camping area.  To get to the hot springs, cross the river and turn left.  Go a few hundred yards and then cross back over the river and turn right.  Make your way along the river for about a quarter of a mile.  Sometimes the going is difficult and you will be walking through poison oak.  Just when you think you might have missed them, the smell of sulfur  is noticeable.  Keep going for another fifty yards and you will find three hot springs.  The largest will hold four adults comfortably, but sometimes more people have to be accommodated.  The water is usually a tepid 100 degrees.  Nudity in and around the warm water is common. Don’t forget your towel and boots because it’s a long walk back.

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6 thoughts on “Fall Backpacking – Ventana Wilderness”

  1. After the fire a few years ago, the first thing to grow back in Ventana was the poison oak. Its not unusual to find yourself in a forest of it because some of the trails were destroyed and hikers have to move cross-country. Poison Oak problems are especially bad in the summer when hikers are wearing short pants and tee shirts. For this reason, I would take Scouts on their first 50 miler to the Sierras where poison oak is rare. There are lots of good hikes in Emigrant that a beginning hiker can easily handle.

  2. Los Padres National Forest would be a fine place for a 50 miler. There are lots of trails and trail heads, beautiful views, interesting history, and your hikers won’t have to worry about altitude sickness. Later in the season it will be hot and water may be scarce so talk to the Rangers before you go to make sure there is a reliable water source every day. (Call the Monterrey Ranger District in King City at 831-385-5434. They may refer you to the Rangers at Big Sur Station.) You might also look at Big Basin Park near Santa Cruz, there are lots of trails there and more water, but is likely to be more crowded. Let me know how it turns out.

  3. Question: would this location make for a good 50-miler for a young troop that has not done a 50-miler before? Thank you, Jeff A.

  4. Another point, we did this as a one way trip. Started at “China Camp” which is along “Chew’s Ridge” (Elev ~4200 ft) and ended at Hwy 1 at Big Sur. Big advantage: predominantly downhill . Downside is logistical complexity of moving pick-up and drop-off vehicles around the wilderness. We had some kind volunteers coordinate the drop off and pick-up with a family weekend in Carmel.

  5. Years ago, I went with Benjamin and other Scouts on a pre-50 hike to Ventana. We went by Sykes hot springs. Nobody was skinny-dipping in the pool adjacent to the spring (usually a big attraction there during Spring Break!). My recollection that the Pine Ridge Trail (leaving from the forest service station near Feiffer Big Sur SP and heading upstream) while steep as all get-out, was well maintained and didn’t have much trouble with poision oak overhang.

    We had an experience there with some trail maintenance workers who told the story of one of their donkeys dying while working on that trail. It was late in the season, the river was flowing well, and they didn’t want to haul the carcass out. Having some extra dynamite and being resourceful workers, they took care of the problem. The mental image is amazing! I bet this made some Turkey Vultures happy!

  6. Great report about your hike in Ventana Wilderness. We went in July 2006 when it was blasting hot. It was a very challenging hike, but worth it. We camped at Barlow Flat and cooled off in the river. It was our first trip and you’re right, we didn’t make it to the hot springs. Thanks for the directions.

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