This is one of the most popular hikes in the Bay Area (although in my opinion
way overrated, unless you are really into hot springs, and even then these rank
among the most pathetic i have seen in my life).
The distance is also wildly exaggerated (the old signs were mere approximations).
Technically, this is the very beginning of the Pine Ridge trail.
The hike is mostly uneventful, and does not afford any of the ocean views that Big Sur is famous for.
Anybody who tells you about amazing forest scenery has obviously never hiked in
a forest before.
The main attractions are the gorge (that is truly impressive at the beginning)
and (in the winter and spring) the river at the end (virtually dry in the summer).
The hot springs, in my opinion, are the exact opposite of a highlight.
The hike can easily be done in a day
(in fact, much less than a full day), but people who like this hike (especially
romantic couples) like to camp at the hot springs.
Beware that the crowds are more likely to remind you of shopping malls than of
nature and wilderness.
This well-maintained trail has nothing to do with the Ventana Wilderness: the real wilderness begins precisely where this trail ends (Sykes Camp).
Drive to 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. Pay the parking fee (note that it's valid only until 3pm).
The trail is not particularly strenuous and there is virtually no overall elevation gain, but the trail goes up and down a number of times and this can take a toll on your muscles and knees. According to the sign at the trailhead (in miles), it should be roughly 16kms one way, but that sign is almost certainly wrong (like all signs that are still in "miles") and the real distance is more like 12-14 kms. You will know you are halfway when you reach Terrace Creek camp. There are two creek crossings (the second one being Terrace Creek camp). The third creek you encounter (Big Sur River) is your destination. To get to the hot springs, turn left at Big Sur River and follow the left bank of the river downstream for about 500 meters. This involves some easy rock climbing but it might take 15 minutes or more. Beware that the rock is very slippery (especially for the inexperienced hikers who constitute 90% of the visitors). There are three tubs very close to each other (50 meters apart). They are about the size of your bath tub.
Camping is allowed along the river on both sides.
On the way back, make sure you cross the creek at Terrace Creek otherwise you end up on a trail that will take you into the wilderness.
Beware of poison oak: it is ubiquitous.
Roughly: to the Ventana camp turnout 1h 25', to Terrace Creek camp 1h 45', to hot springs 3h 15'.
If you want a nearby Ventana Wilderness adventure, see the China Camp to Big Sur page for a more rewarding and peaceful route to this overcrowded tourist destination.