Hiking from China Camp to Big Sur

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It is about 38 kms from China Camp to Big Sur Station along the Pine Ridge trail. This trail goes through the Sykes Hot Springs, so it is popular to break the hike in two/three days and camp at the hot springs. But the one-way hike can be done in one day.

China Camp is part of the Ventana Wilderness, a region near Big Sur, between San Francisco and Los Angeles (not the small China Camp State Park near San Francisco).

Directions to China Camp: heading south on Highway 1 from Monterey, turn left (east) on Carmel Valley Road in Carmel. After about 40 kms (17 kms past Carmel Valley Village), turn right (south) into Cachagua Road and then right onto forest road 18S02 (which is initially called Jamesburg Rd but everybody seems to know as Tassajara Rd) and continue on this Tassajara Road for about 16km (as of 2010, only the first two kms are paved). After about 15 km of unpaved road, you will pass White Oaks Campground on your left. After another km you reach the top of the hill (this is a good place to camp if you don't want to camp at the campground). The road gets worse and heads downhill. After about 15' (hard to calculate distances) you are almost at the bottom. There is a sign for China Camp on your right but most likely you will first notice the sign that points to "Pine Valley trail". Just 100 meters further there is a little parking lot on the left. Park there (or park on the street) and across the street from the parking is the trailhead for "Pine Ridge trail" (sorry for the confusion with names, not my fault).

The other trailhead is at Big Sur Station, 40 km south of Carmel, 6 km south of Andrew Molera State Park and 1km south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on hwy 1.

You have to drive about 100 km to go from one trailhead to the other one, and it takes about two hours because the last 20 km are a nightmare.

Getting to the trailhead is quite an adventure in itself if you don't have a 4WD vehicle, but feasible in dry weather with any kind of car. The trail starts uphill from just past China Camp towards the top of a hill that constitutes the westermost point of the ridge. The rest of the trail pretty much follows the ridge to the top of another hill, where it starts going down towards a redwood forest (Redwood Camp). From this point on, as the trail winds its way along the ridges (without climbing them) through Sykes Hot Springs all the way to the coast, the landscape changes dramatically, mostly tall redwood trees.

From China Camp to Church Creek Divide the trail is relatively clear. From Church Creek Divide to Black Cone Trail Junction the trail begins to be overgrown, with tall bushes encroaching it. From Black Cone Trail Junction to Big Sur Trail Junction the conditions get considerably worse, with low brush invading the trail and making it difficult even to see the trail. In this section one can easily miss a key sign or junction. If you are wearing short pants or short-sleeve shirts, you will get scratches. As you head down from Big Sur Trail Junction to Redwood Camp the trail improves. Beyond this point there are few obstacles to hiking at a fast speed, except for the poison oak.

General advice:
  • Do not wear shorts. The trail is very overgrown from China Camp to Redwood Camp. I got countless scratches on my legs and arms. Beyond Redwood Camp the trail is in good conditions, but infested with poison oak all the way till the end.
  • The Ventana Wilderness has a well-deserved reputation for poor signs. Even when they exist, it is easy to miss them because of the overgrown vegetation. A good map helps avoid missing the invisible junctions.
  • The distances are wrong all the way. Carmel River is not 16 km (10 miles) from China Camp (i wish i were that fast of a hiker). Sykes Hot Springs to Big Sur Station is not 16 km (10 miles).
  • Reportedly, Pine Ridge Camp (halfway into the hike) has water
  • The detour to Sykes Hot Springs takes about 15' each way, and (in my opinion) is not worth it.
  • You will meet very few hikers from China Camp to Sykes. Then a lot of hikers.

  • China Camp: start of Pine Ridge trail (uphill)
  • Top of the first hill (3 km): 45'
  • Junction with the Church Creek Divide and Carmel River trail (5 km): 1h 15' + 15' stop
  • Divide campground: 1h 45'
  • Junction with Pine Valley trail (10 km): 2h 25'
  • Second junction with the Pine Valley trail: 2h 50'
  • Top of barren hill and junction with the Black Cone trail to Strawberry Valley (mostly downhill till Redwood Camp): 3h 10'
  • Junction with the trail to Pine Ridge Camp: 3h 40' (water at Pine Ridge Camp?)
  • Three-way junction with Big Sur trail (to Cienega camp): 4h 50'
  • Creek crossing and Rainbow Camp (the landscape changes to shady redwood forest): 5h 10' and 30' stop
  • Crossing of Big Sur River and Sykes camping area: 6h 45'
  • Sykes hot springs: 7h
  • Back to Pine Ridge trail: 7h 15'
  • Little waterfall: 7h 35'
  • Top of hill: 7h 45'
  • Trail to Barlow Camp: 8h 15'
  • Creek crossing: 8h 30'
  • Terrace Creek: 9h
  • First view of Hwy 1: 10h 15'
  • Sign that only says "Trail": 10h 30'
  • Creek crossing: 10h 50'
  • Big Sur Station (37 km): 11h 15'
Pictures of these hikes
Other hikes in the Ventana Wilderness:
(Google Earth)

Big Sur
Big Sur camping
Big Sur webcam
Rangers: Big Sur Station: 831-667-2315.
Camping near China Camp: both White Oaks and China Camp work (thankfully) on a first-come first-served basis but they only have 5-6 sites each.

Camping near Big Sur: lots of expensive and bureaucracy-heavy campgrounds near Big Sur. Best are Andrew Molera (24 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis), just north of Big Sur, and two hike-in environmental campsites in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Kirk Creek (34 sites on a first come first serve basis) is south of Big Sur, and there are two more up nearby Naciemento Ferguson Road (Ponderosa and Nacimiento).