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Three Stunning Hikes Near Sykes Hot Springs

If you don’t mind sharing the view, now is the best time to go.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California


Hiking veterans will tell you to steer clear of Big Sur this time of year to avoid the crowds. There’s a reason why you might have to wait in line for a dip in the hot springs or share stunning views with a stranger standing beside you. Right now the weather is warm, the sun is out, and it’s one of the few places in Northern California still unaffected by wildfires this year (knock on wood–gorgeous, 300-foot coastal redwood). Late summer is Big Sur’s busiest season, but don’t let the possibility of a little extra foot traffic stop you from indulging in beach-hiking prime time. We’ve rounded up a trio popular trails, from a leisurely stroll to a heart-pumping trek. 

Easy: McWay Waterfall Trail (0.64 mile)

If you like “efficient” hiking that’s short yet gratifying, this is the route for you. Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the trail boasts views of the 80-foot McWay Creek waterfall as it empties into the ocean. To get there, drive toward the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park entrance, located along Highway 1, about 11 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Park near the lot entrance, where you will find bathrooms and water fountains, and from there walk toward the highway, following signs for the waterfall trail. You’ll walk over a set of stairs and go through a tunnel. Once you’re facing the ocean, follow the trail to the right and get ready for one of the most famous views the California coast has to offer. 

Medium: Ewoldsen Trail (5.5 mile loop)

This loop begins in the same parking lot as the McWay Waterfall Trail hike. Instead of following the waterfall trail signs, look for signs for the Ewoldsen Canyon trail, near the east end of the parking lot. The trail goes over several bridges, and you’ll want to be sure to take a right after crossing the first one in order to stay on the right track. About halfway in, you’ll reach a short side trail leading off to the right for an exceptional view of the coast. After a quick snack under the shady redwoods and likely a few Instagram-worthy shots, begin your descent down the loop with caution (the trail narrows in the second half) as it winds back to the parking lot.  

Difficult: Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs (20 miles)

If you’re ready for something more challenging—and have proper camping gear to get you through a few nights in the wilderness—drive about 11 miles (20 minutes) north of McWay Falls for a challenging yet rewardingly beautiful backpacking excursion. Set aside at least two days for this bad boy; you’ll want to maximize your time in those hypnotizing hot springs. Before you go, make sure you have equipment such as a tent, sleeping bag, warm clothes, sunscreen, and sufficient food and water supplies. There are few places to fill up bottles with river water before reaching the hot springs, and it’s crucial to carry a filter or iodine tablets in order to sanitize the river water for drinking. 

To hike to the hot springs at Sykes Camp, you’ll want to start off by parking at Big Sur Station, which costs $5 per day. Permits are required for using camp stoves during the dry summer months; these are free and can be filled out at Big Sur Station as well. If 10 miles sounds like a lot for one afternoon—or the crowds at Sykes Camp are a bit overwhelming—there are also plenty of other campgrounds to choose from along the way, including Barlow Flat (3 miles before Sykes) and Redwood Camp (2.5 miles past Sykes). And for better or worse, all of the campsites run on a first-come-first-served basis. Better start early!

At Big Sur Station, look for signs near the back of the parking lot to mark the hike entrance. From there, it’s a breathtaking (in every sense of the word) 10-mile trail blaze to the camp and hot springs. After about five miles of waterfalls, wildflowers, and expansive views of the valley, you’ll come across a river crossing at Terrace Creek, which is another optional campground. Practice your balancing skills by walking over the fallen logs that bridge the water if you want to avoid wet feet. But with current dry weather conditions and low water levels, walking straight through will be a breeze. Once you’ve reached Sykes Camp, walk downstream in the water (barefoot is fine, but pros come prepared with water sandals). After about 15 minutes, you’ll spot the hot springs just past the river bend on the left. All that’s left to do is kick back and enjoy nature’s Jacuzzis, which sizzle around 102 degrees Fahrenheit. 

To get back to Big Sur Station, retrace your steps along the same trail you took to get to the hot springs. (Be sure to filter and fill up on water before that 10-mile return.) Fortunately, it might go by faster this time, as the gradient will tend to be more downhill than on the way there. 

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Ewoldsen Trail. Photo: Wayne Hsieh/Flickr