The Carmel Pine Cone's third story of the week

Previous Home Next

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 said.

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 added.

Not surprisingly, the VWA is always looking to boost its ranks of volunteers. If you’re interested, call (831) 423-3191 or visit