According to the United States Forest Service, Los Padres National Forest stretches almost 220 miles from Monterey County in the north to Los Angeles County in the south. There are about 24 campgrounds spread throughout the nearly 2 million-acre stretch of rugged California coast, mountains and forest. In addition to camping, this wilderness holds a variety of opportunities for soothing, energizing, tasty and healthy lifestyle activities.
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Backpack to Sykes Hot Springs
Sykes Hot Springs and camp, in the Los Padres National Forest, are on the Big Sur River and accessible only by hiking 10 miles in from the Ventana Wilderness ranger station, just south of Big Sur Lodge on Highway 1. Pay for parking and permit at the ranger station and take the Pine Ridge trail to the camp. Weekends can be crowded so go mid-week or start early. The hot springs are about 100 degrees and sit above the river so you relax in the springs, under the stars or mid-day, and then refresh yourself in the clear water of the Big Sur River.
Meditate at Tassajara
Tassajara is a Buddhist monastery with a lovely hot spring bath house. Day use of the serene facilities includes soaking in the baths and a meditation class; reservations are required. There is no camping at Tassajara, but the Arroyo Seco campground, accessible from Carmel Valley, is a 7-mile hike to the center. Hint: A camp near the center is at the start of the Tony Trail’s ascent, a little way from the grounds, over the bridge and past the swing set.
Go Fishing in a Cove
Plaskett Creek campgrounds are located about 30 miles north of San Simeon. Shielded from the Pacific winds by Monterey pines and cypress, many sites are in sunny spots amid small grassy fields. Wander down to the Sand Dollar trail head for an easy walk to bluff-top trails and beach access, or take a short drive to Gorda and check out the visiting elephant seals in the winter or spring, or go fishing in a secluded cove.
Soak Under the Starry Night
Hugging the Pacific Coast 11 miles south of Big Sur Lodge and campgrounds, Esalen Institute is a world unto itself. A place for cultural, spiritual and healing activities, the Institute hosts workshops on health and wellness, is a massage school and is locally renowned for its hot tubs. The tubs are open to the public between the hours of 1 a.m and 3 a.m., as of 2010. Perched on the cliff side, these private pools provide a stellar opportunity to sooth the spirit and revel in the magic of the night sky.
Take a break from the Coleman stove and visit an eatery on the Big Sur Coast. The Restaurant at Ventana, housed at the Ventana Inn and Spa about 28 miles south of Carmel, has a spacious, inviting dining room with gourmet food made from fresh, local ingredients. The casual Nepenthe Restaurant, about 29 miles south of Carmel, serves dishes made with local, seasonal fruits and vegetables on a deck with spectacular views of the coast. Both restaurants are minutes from the Big Sur and Riverside campgrounds.