It’s easy to understand why surfer dudes and photographers groove on its thundering surf and sweeping cliffs, but even the likes of legendary eroticist Henry Miller have swooned over California’s Big Sur coast. As part of the bohemian culture that took root here, Miller described the place as “seductive” and “hypnotic”–which is fairly obvious even from the Pacific Coast Highway, the way most visitors experience it. But the grandeur extends well beyond windshield range: Less than 45 minutes from Carmel’s overpriced bauble shops lie thousands of steep, wild acres studded with swimming holes, bubbling hot springs, waterfall-draped ridges, and angular canyons. Begin hiking in the 240,000-acre Ventana Wilderness, and despite the tang of salt air, you feel sealed off from the mega-rich newcomers who’ve methodically nudged out Miller’s ilk.
For what is arguably the finest weekend of backpacking along the entire California coast, plan to spend 3 days on the 23-mile Pine Ridge Trail, which meanders through groves of 300-foot redwood trees and fern-lined canyons. From the trailhead at Big Sur Station, the path gradually serves up views of the Pacific Ocean and the peaks of Ventana Double Cone, the area’s signature two-headed peak. (Early inhabitants believed a rock arch once spanned the two summits–hence ventana, the Spanish word for “window.”) At 6.7 miles, you’ll arrive at a detour to Barlow Flats Camp, where you’ll descend .2 mile and follow a narrow trail to an 80-foot-wide swimming hole along a creek. Venture a little farther downstream, and you can splash around in other pools near a waterfall. Double back to the Pine Ridge Trail and continue another 2.9 miles to the stone-lined tubs of Sykes Hot Springs, which gurgles at a soothing 100°F. (Streams of cooler water flow just a few feet away.) If you’re still mobile after the soak, walk on 2.3 miles to Redwood Camp, a tranquil backcountry area, and bunk down along the Big Sur River in a grove of old-growth redwoods.