Big Sur’s Bigger Backcountry

Mj 618_348_hiking in big sur
Tom Bean / Getty Images

Big Sur is both a state of mind and a 90-mile stretch of dramatic California coastline lined with large cliffs. Known for both its white sand coves and its hippie communes, the area has been a refuge for iconoclasts like Edward Weston, Henry Miller, and Hunter S. Thompson for decades. Come fall, when the summer crowds disperse, the locals take to the hills to enjoy the views, dunk in natural hot springs, and aggressively pursue happiness in all its myriad forms. We recommend you join them.

While the coastal trails are spectacular – numerous waterfalls gushing less than a mile from the road – the better hikes are deeper in the Ventana Wilderness along the Pine Ridge Trail. The trail rolls through the heart of the 240,000-acre reserve, climbing sharp ridgelines separating steep-sided valleys thick with old-growth forest and towering redwoods. Streams fall through narrow canyons, and deep pools of cold water ripple next to plentiful hot springs.

Follow the trail 11 miles from the Big Sur Station ranger checkpoint to Sykes Hot Springs, a great campground set next to a series of welcoming springs that is thoughtfully outfitted with fire pits. Be sure to bring a good pair of water shoes – hikers have to cross the Big Sur River, which will either be a trickle or a torrent depending on recent precipitation – and keep an eye out for the half dozen waterfalls along the trail. Spend the next night at China Camp, another 12 to 13 miles (the distances in the Ventana wilderness are notoriously misleading) from Sykes through the redwoods. The trail from Sykes to China is well maintained but feels completely remote, especially upon passing through Redwood Camp, where the route takes you through a series of steep, shrubbery-filled slopes. The end of your journey will leave you far from your starting point, so if you plan on parking your car near the ranger checkpoint, be sure to make transportation arrangements on the back end before you depart.

Recover from the two-day hike with a massage in the Esalen Hot Springs, a series of cliffside thermal baths that Hunter S. Thompson guarded before his big break and native tribes started using some 6,000 years ago (just be sure to book an appointment in advance). The springs, like all of Big Sur, are both wild and tame. The dissolution is cultivated, and the culture defiantly dissolute.

More Information: Make a reservation at the Esalen Hot Springs in advance. Stashing a car on the access road is accepted practice, but be sure to lock it. And, most important, leave the trails as you found them. Increased foot traffic in the Big Sur area has made the more popular hiking routes susceptible to being loved to death.

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