Hikers trash Big Sur hot spring, volunteers
clean it up
Published: November 8, 2013
LONG OVERUSED, Sykes Camp in Big Sur is
being loved to death.
Famous for its hot springs, the campground is so well known it
has its own Yelp page on the Internet. But the notoriety isn’t
doing the popular backpacking destination much good, as
volunteers of the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance know
only too well.
Two weeks ago, three volunteer “backcountry rangers” hauled out
about 50 pounds of trash for 12 miles along the Pine Ridge
Trail, leaving an estimated 350 pounds of garbage behind. On
their visit to Sykes Camp, they discovered 4 illegal campfires,
38 camp stove violations, 19 “inappropriate” fire rings and a
burned toilet. They also found a 15-foot-by-15-foot structure
constructed out of small redwoods trees and limbs hidden
downstream from the camp.
The volunteers were dismayed by the mess — and the blatant
disregard for fire restrictions.
“Many campers had illegal campfires and almost everyone was
using a stove even though we are in fire restrictions where no
flame of any type is allowed,” volunteer Steve Benoit posted on
the VWA’s Internet forum. “There is more toilet paper and human
waste in Sykes than I have ever seen.”
The problem has become so bad that some are calling for a
permit system to limit the numbers of hikers who can stay at
Sykes at any given time.
“The leadership of the VWA believes it’s an idea that
definitely needs to be explored,” VWA spokesman Richard Popchak
told The Pine Cone. “There needs to be some kind of control.”
But Popchak concedes a permit system would need oversight from
the understaffed United States Forest Service.
“I don’t see them getting properly funded any time soon,” he
said. “Big Sur hasn’t had a professional backcountry ranger
since the late 1980s.”
U.S. Forest Service district ranger Tim Short didn’t rule out
the possibility of creating a permit system.
“It’s certainly conceivable,” Short said. “It hasn’t been
looked at in depth, but the idea has been raised before.”
Short agreed something needs to be done to reduce the amount of
trash in the Big Sur wilderness.
“We’re concerned about the situation out there,” he added.
“We’re not satisfied.”
Backcountry rangers were once considered essential in Big Sur.
Sykes Camp was the site of a hippie commune in the late 1960s
and early 1970s, and an effort by the federal agency cleaned up
nearly every trace of it. But two generations later, the camp is
again besieged by overuse.
On its website, the VWA dedicates an entire page to Sykes Camp.
While the page extolls the camp’s virtues, it doesn’t sugarcoat
its problems. For one thing, don’t expect much privacy.
“Over 200 people have been seen returning from Sykes at the end
of a holiday weekend,” the page reads reads. “The camp has
an official capacity of seven sites.”
According to Popchak, many of the problems would be alleviated
if people simply camped somewhere else. “We do our best to steer
people away,” he said.
The Ventana Wilderness has dozens of backpacking destinations
that may not offer hot springs, but feature attributes Sykes
Camp lacks, like ample level ground, solitude and for
stargazers, a better view of the nighttime sky. In addition to
several idyllic camping areas located along the Upper Carmel
River, Vicente Flat Camp, Pico Blanco Public Camp, Pat Spring
and Pine Valley are highly recommended. All require a shorter
and less strenuous trek to reach as well.
The VWA website — as well as its volunteer rangers — encourage
people to “leave no trace” when they camp, respect seasonal fire
restrictions to avoid sparking a potentially devastating
wildfire, and dispose of human waste properly.
“Most people don’t know how to poop in the woods,” Popchak
The forest service recommends on its website human waste be
buried 6- to 8-inches deep — and 200-feet from water.
Some visitors, it seems, are also unfamiliar with one of
backpacking’s most basic axioms — pack it in, pack it out.
“One of our volunteers was hiking out, and someone asked him if
he would bring out their trash,” Popchak reported.
Seemingly undeterred by the challenging and thankless tasks
they face educating the public — and cleaning up after them as
well — VWA volunteers keep trudging forward. “All we can do is
roll up our sleeves and do the best we can to help,” Popchak
Not surprisingly, the VWA is always looking to boost its ranks
of volunteers. If you’re interested, call (831) 423-3191 or