Sykes Camp: Loved to Death?

Crowds and trash at the Big Sur backcountry's most popular destination, Sykes Hot Springs.

by Malone Ahern

July 15, 2016—“Be Prepared:” the Boy Scouts motto applies to any adventure. This simple quote holds a lot of wisdom when planning a backpacking trip. It applies not only to what gear to pack, but to what kind of knowledge and experience you bring to the trail. Where the Pine Ridge Trail in Big Sur is concerned, some of its visitors are seriously lacking in knowledge of backcountry ethics, and the place has the wounds to show for it.

About 10 miles into the Pine Ridge Trail is the well-known Sykes Camp, featuring hot springs that are too attractive for the camp’s own good. Sykes has become overrun with visitors. In recent years hikers have been reporting that on holiday weekends, the number of people on the trail numbers in the hundreds for one day.

A hike to the springs reveals the lack of respect some people have for the backcountry. Abandoned gear, wrappers, water bottles, and toilet paper strewn on the valley walls were common sights on my own trip to Sykes over Fourth of July weekend—not to mention the number of campers that night (more than 50), which well surpassed the officially stated capacity of 20.

Obviously many campers know what they’re doing and pack their trash out. However, with some weekends hosting hundreds of backpackers, it only takes a fraction to do some serious damage.

'There Is No Garbage Service in The Wilderness'

The non-profit Ventana Wilderness Alliance works to counter the impact of overuse and backcountry ignorance. Sykes Camp and the surrounding wilderness is being loved to death; the wilderness is getting spoiled. Richard Popchak, development director of the VWA, explains a common scenario.

“Many people don't realize what it is like to walk 10 miles in rugged terrain while packing an additional 50 pounds," Popchak says. "So some people abandon gear and trash. This of course must be packed out ...There is no garbage service in the wilderness.” As result, Popchak says, “Another group sees abandoned gear and they do the same. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition.”

In a place where people should be leaving as little trace as possible, instead it's not uncommon to find abandoned backpacks and tents along the trail. This isn’t a garage sale giveaway for people needing a new tent. This is forgetting ethics and disrespecting the park, and unfortunately the place has gotten absolutely trashed.

The Pine Ridge Trail is located in the Ventana Wilderness, which is part of the Los Padres National Forest. Not everyone is aware that unlike in a state park, there is no trash service. Rangers also do not have the resources to deal with the problems they face. According to Popchak, “The U.S. Forest Service is woefully underfunded and understaffed. In the Monterey Ranger District, they have not employed a Wilderness Ranger since the 1980s... Having boots on the ground in the Wilderness is essential to the protection of the natural resources.

“Visitors simply have to do their part to enjoy our public lands responsibly."

One reason for the unmanageably high number of people trekking to Sykes is that it appeals to the nature inclined of the Bay Area. Big Sur is a day trip away from 7 million people, that’s guaranteed to provide a steady stream of visitors. Everyone and their dog is coming to Big Sur on holiday weekends.

Posting about outdoor trips is also trending on social media because, let’s face it, being an adventurer is cool. A “sykeshotsprings” hashtag search on Instagram yields 1,850 posts and counting; “#pineridgetrail” has 1,442 posts. Arising from this pool of pictures and John Muir quotes is a new group of adventurers, ranging from the expert diehard to the fledgling beginner. People without a lot of experience make mistakes, and one can see the impact this has had on Big Sur as a whole.

The internet is also to blame. Popchak points out that a Google search of Sykes hot springs will get you to a Yelp page for the springs. “It is illegal for Yelp to make money off of a public entity,” says Popchak, yet it’s there, and it has yet to be taken down.

What The Good Guys Are Doing About It

Groups like the Trailhead Volunteers and the Volunteer Wilderness Rangers, both of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, are making a concerted effort to educate and protect hikers. The Trailhead Volunteers stand at trailheads and educate hikers on trail etiquette. The Volunteer Wilderness Rangers do trail work and other projects like toilet construction in the backcountry using materials they carry in on their backs.

The VWR even saves lives. In one incident earlier this year Joey Lee, an accomplished runner, was critically injured at Sykes Camp when she fell 20 feet down a cliff, breaking her back. It was through the efforts of the VWR and other backpackers who knew first aid that she survived and is recovering.

These organizations are doing a lot of work in Big Sur (with Pine Ridge Trail getting a disproportionate amount compared to the other trails). One Ventana Wilderness blogger recounts his own experience camping, witnessing the VWR working and poor ethics:

A few volunteers worked the trail and cleaned up Sykes camp, removing 70 pounds of waste. Volunteers, on average, have been removing hundreds of pounds of waste/trash from Sykes every year. There were about 150 users at Sykes over MLK weekend with lines of people waiting to use the hot tubs, two of which of which have been illegally constructed and modified with sandbags. Remains of sandbags were found downriver and eventually these get into the ocean. Improperly buried human waste was abundant.

What is the VWA to do when the number of people messing up is unprecedented in the backcountry?

Popchak says there are two strategies that could save the wilderness. One is that people can stop going to the park altogether. Popchak recognizes that this is not a reasonable option, because flat-out closing a park is certainly no small feat. The second is to institute a permit system. People apply for a permit, and a set number are issued every year. The issue with this is that it will require more staff and money to institute and execute—not to mention enforce—two things the rangers are lacking.

Concludes Popchak, “Yogi Berra once famously said about a popular nightspot in New York, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.'

"That's the way it is with Sykes. People feel compelled to go. They want to be part of the 'in crowd,' I guess. There are over 275,000 acres of Wilderness in the Big Sur backcountry. We suggest that people challenge themselves and explore wild places other than Sykes. Experience the solitude and primeval nature of true Wilderness. Just be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles wherever you go.”

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