The Near Misadventure of Sykes Hot Springs in January

The hike to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur, CA is 10 miles, out and back. Getting a late start, we hit the Pine Ridge trail with the intention of making it to the hot springs before sun down.

We whizzed through nine miles of redwood forest on a windy ridge trail etched into the side of the mountains, the sound of the Big Sur river gushing far below.

The last mile was a long descent down switchbacks. Ripe and ready for hot springs, the reward for a rigorous hike could not come soon enough. But at the bottom of the switchbacks, we stopped short. A few feet ahead, the Big Sur river ripped past us, twenty feet wide and dooming. The camp sites were on the other side, and the map said the hot springs were a quarter mile downstream from the camp sites. I stared up and down the river, looking for a bridge of some sort. There was none.

Then I spotted a rope upstream tied to a tree on either side of the river. “I guess we take our shoes off and cross,” Taylor said. I stared at the careening water, the unknowable depth, and thought, no way. There was no way I wouldn’t get eaten by the current, licking it’s white foaming lips.

Taylor took off his shoes and socks and tested the water with his foot. His feet found rocks, and he went for it. Legs rigid, body vibrating, he held on tight to the rope that had too much slack.  The water rose to his upper thigh. Nervous for my turn, I searched for other possibilities. Maybe there was a crossing downstream.  Some rocks or a fallen tree….

Taylor and I stared at each other from opposite sides of the river. I had come all this way and didn’t want to wimp out. Leave it to Taylor, always getting me in crazy situations.

“You can do it!” he shouted over the river. Can I, though? Or will I actually die. He suggested I take off my shirt to save it from getting wet. Water up to his thigh would reach my belly button at the least. While disrobing, I saw someone from the corner of my eye about to head up the switchbacks. It was a man. I only saw for a second, but where had he come from? Had he crossed the river somewhere downstream?

“There’s someone here,” I said to Taylor.


“There’s someone here!” I looked again but he was gone. Couldn’t have been my imagination. I walked downstream as far as I could, until the bank became a vertical rock wall. There was no way to cross.

So I turned back and prepared myself for the ultimate crossing. Hiking boots tied together and slung over my neck, I gripped the rope and stepped into the river. My breath was short and quick, the water pressure causing me to lean back for balance. It really wasn’t that bad. I’ve found a hill looks steeper, a cliff sketchier, a problem bigger at a distance. Once you’re in it, it becomes about putting one foot in front of the other, a more manageable feat. On the other side, I waited for the feeling to return to my legs. Taylor read aloud from the map: Big Sur river impassable in the winter.

Well, great…

Night was minutes from falling and we’d barely begun our search for the hot springs. There was no trail, so we figured we’d have to find our own way. Just when it came time for head lamps, we spotted a group of three across the river, making their way down stream by practically scaling the rocky riverbank. Did they know where they were going or were they just as lost as us? Soon they were out of sight. A little disappointed, we’d have to wait until the morning to find the hot springs.

The next morning, the river’s water level significantly decreased. We maneuvered through thick brush and slippery rocks searching for the hot springs. Were they really this difficult to find or were we just stupid? After 45 minutes of no luck, Taylor stood on a patch of sand looking defeated. I was ready to give up. Then he turned to me and said, “Do you smell that?”

I inhaled deeply. Sulfur.  The scent of hot springs.

But which way? Directly across the river looked like a small trail. Taylor summoned his last bit of determination, stripped from the waste down, and once again, crossed the river, calmer this time. He disappeared down the trail and a couple minutes later, waved me over.

The small trail grew soggier with water that grew warmer. The smell of sulfur intensified as did my excitement. Finally, we emerged over a hill only to look down at two natural pools of hot flowing water. We giddily stripped naked and jumped in. A little later, the hikers we’d seen the day before arrived, who, as we found out, had just as much trouble finding the hot springs. They avoided our pool, however – I guess we were those weird naked people.


Photo found on Google

Finding Sykes hot springs was a crazy unforeseen adventure that made the reward that much better. My advice to others would be not to go in January when the river is high. Although, Sykes is insanely busy in the summer, so maybe try the fall?


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