We just got back from a gourmet backpacking trip in the Big Sur Wilderness which was, in my expert opinion, the perfect spa vacation. It is low stress, great exercise and the solitude of the trail offers many opportunities for reflection. Why gourmet? You are rewarded for your exertion with two hot springs, delicious food, restorative yoga, 5-star views and excellent company!
The Pine Ridge Trail begins at the Big Sur Station just past the popular River Inn on Highway One. The destination is Tassajara, a Buddhist monastery deep in the Ventana Wilderness which offers lodging and sulphur hot springs. I recommend planning on taking four days, for although only 23 miles, the trail travels from river valleys to mountain peaks three times and can be very challenging depending on the weather and the conditions. Neck high brush and extreme temperatures are not uncommon on the eastern half the mountains. Also, it is nice to relax in the afternoons and enjoy Sykes Hot Springs on the Big Sur River or have time to recover at Pine Ridge from what we laughingly call Agony Trail.
On day three we get up at dawn in order to beat the heat as we climb a steep rocky faced path to Pine Ridge. Done in the early morning it is an easy three mile climb. If done in the afternoon, the brush, combined with the sun reflecting off the shale, can be agonizing. Hence the name, Agony Trail. This is when you begin to regret the extra granola you packed. Minimal is best when hiking this kind of terrain.
There are rewards for at the end of this challenging hike however. The views and the wild flowers are spectacular from Pine Ridge and you can see vistas all the way to the Monterey. There is also a beautiful spring that comes right out of the mountain and is the sweetest water I have ever tasted. Restorative yoga, coffee and sweets are traditionally on the afternoon agenda.
The next day is the trek to Pine Valley. An easy four miles that drops you into a low hanging valley covered in a field of lupine and poppies. Oak, Lucia Pines and Sugar Pines dominate the landscape and the sandstone cliffs harbor Indian caves where one can find mortars and ancient pictographs left by the Esalen indians.
The last day is a five mile run in order to make Tassajara by lunch. By day four a fresh salad and steamy bread are strong motivations to hike out early. Church Creek trail offers beautiful vistas of sandstone rock formations but is often poorly marked and brushy. No obstacles are great enough to slow down the pace as we imagine showers, hot springs and fresh food.
When entering Tassajara there is always a hush that comes over me. The monastery has a sacred energy due to the monks strong meditation practice. The lack of electricity and the constant gurgle of the river immediately soothes one’s soul. In the Japanese tradition the baths separate the sexes which leads to complete ease and fun conversations. The steam room is a testimony to the Zen aesthetic which combines beauty and simplicity. Lined in colorful river stones with solid redwood benches and a small window looking towards the river. It is by far the nicest sauna I have ever frequented.
I wanted to share this trip not only because it was so much fun but to remind people that a “spa vacation” can be inexpensive and free of the hassles of traveling in airports. We live in such an amazing state and have wilderness within short distances. The hiking equipment is lighter weight these days and the hike not only feels good at the end of the day but affords you privacy, a continual change of spectacular scenery and possible adventure!