Ready, Set, Go

“The usage of traditional tools is part of the wilderness ethic,” says Rich Popchak. “It’s a practice in restraint.”

For a hundred years, the Pine Ridge Trail served as one of the most popular gateways to the Big Sur backcountry. Part of the draw was the reward for hikers who made it to the 10-mile mark near Sykes Camp: soaking in hot springs that formed into pools thanks to a makeshift arrangement of rocks and sandbags.

But in 2016 the Soberanes Fire happened, followed by torrential downpours in 2017. The trail was wiped out by fallen redwoods and mudslides that dramatically reshaped the terrain.

The Pine Ridge Trail is now being restored and partially rerouted, and the U.S. Forest Service says it could open for the coming summer hiking season. The rudimentary hot tubs that made the route Instagram-famous, however, will be gone. They were washed away by the heavy rains of recent winters.

“The hot tubs are not going to be allowed back,” Forest Service spokesperson Lynn Olson says. She points out that the installation of artificial structures at Sykes goes against the ethics and laws protecting the wilderness.

As many as 200 people at a time used to congregate near the hot springs, oftentimes trampling vegetation and abandoning camping gear and personal hygiene products, according to wilderness advocates. They say the return to a natural state could help alleviate the area’s overuse. “If you take away the utopian vision of hot springs in the wilderness, you are likely going to have less visitation,” says Rich Popchak, communications director for the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance.

Over the past year, nearly 50 volunteers from VWA, working in conjunction with professional crews funded by the Forest Service, have used hand tools to carve out a new trail. No motorized equipment is allowed in the backcountry so the crews relied on pack mules.

For now, Pine Ridge remains too dangerous for visitors and the trailhead is closed – though some people are hiking in anyway, according to Olson. Trespassers risk getting caught by forest rangers, which can lead to $5,000 fine and a six-month prison sentence.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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