Adventure Weekend: Hike Big Sur, California

Scratch the picturesque postcard surface of Big Sur...and there's far more than you imagined, including hot springs and high-rise trails.
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Scratch the picturesque postcard surface of Big Sur...and there's far more than you imagined, including hot springs and high-rise trails.

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.

Big sur at sunset

The Big Sur coastline aglow from the setting sun.

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.

In the morning, rise early to pit your fly-fishing acumen against the river's steelhead trout (catch-and-release only; the season lasts through October). Then continue along the Pine Ridge deeper into isolation, zigzagging up 2,770 feet in 3.9 miles to the trail's namesake ridge and views of the wilderness's jagged peaks. It's another 3.2 miles to Divide Camp--an ideal spot to bed down under oaks and alders before rounding the pine-cloaked mountains that flank the final 4.1 miles out to China Camp. From there, Cone Peak towers nearly a mile above the Pacific; 5,862-foot Junipero Serra, the highest point in the Santa Lucia Range, looms in the distance. Stop at Big Sur River Inn for outdoor jazz and homemade apple pie before heading home; as Henry Miller would tell you, wilderness is just one of many earthly pleasures.

--Amy Ettinger

Big Sur Travel Tips

»Directions This end-to-end hike requires a car shuttle. Park one at Big Sur Station; stash the other at China Camp, 33 miles by road to the northeast.

»Permits None required for camping, but you will need one for campfires (free at www. fs.fed.us/r5/lospadres/passes/campfire.)

»Beta For current trail info, go to www.ventanawild.org. Other questions, contact Big Sur Station at (831) 667-2315.

»Map Get the USFS map of the Los Padres National Forest, Monterey and Santa Lucia Range Districts.