Located Deep within the Los Padres National Forest, nestled in one of Sespe Creek's northern reaching canyons, lies a nearly one mile stretch of what is said to be one of the hottest natural hot springs in Southern California. Sespe Hot Springs at its source produces water upwards of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Its heat can be felt in the stream all the way through the foot of the canyon and the floor of the campsites that dot the trail are substantially warmer than sites located near the Sespe River Trail. The beauty behind this hidden gem falls not only on the quality of its real estate, but in the fact that it lies over 15 miles away from civilization as this entire section of the Sespe River is protected under its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. Its flow is completely uninterrupted by dams or concrete channels.
However, laying in one of Sespe Hot Spring's natural pools requires quite a bit of commitment; 15 miles and over 2,000 feet to be exact. Besides the distance, its trail includes ten river crossing and is nonexistent for up to an entire mile after recent storm conditions flooded portions of the trail. Its also dotted with poison oak, rattlesnakes (in the warmer months) and fallen trees toward the second half. For most, backpacking to the springs in a day is almost completely out of the question. And so, on April 17th we set out to do exactly that.
Although the Sespe River flows year around, the water levels can diminish during the Fall due to intense summer heat while Winter storms often leave the creek completely impassable. For the most part, the segments of the Sespe River Trail that aren't obvious paths are well marked with cairns, but bringing a map is crucial to any successful outing and here, the trail seems to diminish due to both recent flood conditions and its lack human contact. It is absolutely necessary to check out the Forest Service website regarding road closures and trail conditions and even call the Ojai Ranger District to ask for updates before you lose cell service.
Most would agree that staying three nights on this trail is optimal to spend ample time taking in the exquisite landscapes while minimizing fatigue. However, one of the great things the Sespe River Trail has to offer in the Spring time is seemingly limitless options for water filtration and camping. You can push to the edge of comfort knowing that another primitive site is most definitely around the corner.
The evening of Sunday April 16th was spent shuffling around the house, packing and hoping for a good nights rest so that we could get an early start on the trail. I had made some estimates on hiking time including buffers like short five minute breaks to use the restroom or filter water, but we were shooting for a 25 minute mile average with an hour of stopping time to account for the rest.
THE SESPE RIVER TRAIL
Piedra Blanca trail head | Elevation 3,069 feet
Monday April 17th -- 8:30AM. I was awoken by the soothing sound of my 2004 Nissan Xterra being driven over small pothole, a jerky rattle similar to that of a tool chest being dropped from a second story window. I sat up and was treated to endless clusters of sandstone and chaparral unique to the Los Padres National Forest. We were coming down the last stretch of Rose Valley Road (Forest Route 6N31) where we would soon pass the Middle Lion Campground junction before the final descent into the Sespe Creek Canyon.
The parking area was almost completely empty with the exception of two gorged trash cans which indicated the weekend rush that we just missed. We grabbed our packs and made for the trail head which is obscurely located to the east of the the parking lot. The conditions were perfect. Billowing clouds rolled in from the west offering shade while hints of blue sky relieved us from any fear of weather.
There are 11 notable river crossings throughout the canyon and three of them exist within the first mile. We prayed that the first two were easy to manage since our last attempt at reaching the Hot Springs only one month prior to this trip was just after a thunderstorm which made the water levels chest deep and forced us to turn back. The first bed was only a foot and a half at base level, and we plowed joyously through. Although many of the the crossings feature some sort of obvious rock path to avoid wet feet, a lot of them do not and the first is no exception. We prepared by bringing light weight trail runners in favor of traditional hiking boots since they would dry faster and help us to avoid blisters. Within a half a mile, we had come to the Piedra Blanca trail junction. We shifted right following the River toward Bear Creek trail camp.
ONTO BEAR CREEK TRAIL CAMP
Bear Creek Campground | Elevation 2,812 feet
The trail was easy to navigate, being as wide as 10 feet in some sections and featured a slow and steady descent. The most difficult part here was resisting the urge to tear off our clothes and jump into the many swimming holes the river bed had to offer. We strapped on some horse blinders and managed a strong pace, eating and adjusting our packs as we walked.
By 10:20 AM, we had completed 4.5 miles and a most of our homemade turkey club wraps. We could have easily bypassed the gorgeous Bear Creek Trail Camp by staying to the left most trail, but its shaded sites and sandy beaches are always worth investigating. We spent all of two minutes admiring its comforts before strolling further East.
Just passed the camp, the path crosses the channel for the fourth time and although the trail appears to continue east after crossing, it instead shifts south-west to climb a quick switchback, bringing you above the floodplain where it remains for another mile before crossing the river yet again. We filtered some water and made way for the creek bed. This one is probably the longest creek junction, spanning at nearly 50 feet of shallow water. Once we made it across, we were greeted with an array of wild flowers including Notch-Leaf Phacelia and Bristly Fiddleneck. Their miniature purple and gold buds contrasted each other wonderfully making for a great visual experience.
ROLLING HILLS & OAK FLAT CAMPGROUND
Oak Flat Campground | Elevation 2,600 feet
After a mostly steady descent for nearly 6 miles, the trail begins to move away from the creek, climbing the northern hillside. At the top, we were rewarded with some spectacular overhead views of Oak Flat Campground and another descent. This 'rolling hill' fashion would continue for the remainder of our trek toward Willet (mile 9.5) for a total of five climbs ranging from 100-200 feet which can be a pleasant change of scenery or an exhausting challenge, perspective dependent.
WILLET & THACHER CAMP
Willet Camp | Elevation 2,520 feet
12:40 PM -- We started descending the last of the rolling hills after nearly 4 hours of determined motion and although the early morning blessed us with cloudy weather, the afternoon brought on clear skies and just a little more sunshine than we needed. We continued along the hillside staying west of the creek passing the many sites of Thacher Camp since the year before, we had spent the night there and were under the impression that the trail to Sespe Hot Spring continued on this side of the Creek. I even went as far as confirming the route with two other skeptical backpackers along the way. Within minutes of passing the Willet Hot Spring junction and a few old rustic metal shack ruins, the trail began to disappear and I knew I had done something wrong. I pulled out my map and was able to determine that we should have crossed the creek near Thacher Campground and avoided Willet altogether. We shuffled through the bush, where we quickly found a washed out trail.
***If you are wondering why we didn't just drop our packs and head for Willet Hot Spring to call it a day, its because Willet Hot Spring is a algae ridden, murky man made pool with smelly luke warm water. Plus we had already done that last year guys, c'mon!
DIFFICULTIES UP TO HARTMAN CAMP
Hartman Camp | Elevation 2,489 feet
The humbling experience of falling off track was cause to halt our hiking trivia game and focus on navigating, especially since the prior months storms had mostly washed away portions of the trail leaving nothing but muddy foot prints flanked with poison oak. At mile 10.5, we crossed the creek yet again which brought us to Hartman Camp. The cool water soothed our aching feet while trail cairns and a wide open path brought us some much needed comfort after our previous difficulties. We were now just over a third of the way to the hot springs and a victory glass of wine.
Coltrell Flat Campground | Elevation 2,312 feet
At 2:20 PM we had traveled 12.3 miles, climbed 1,300 feet, descended just under 2,000 feet and crossed Sespe Creek nine times in total. Our heavy packs were no longer a burden since our shoulders and hips were mostly numb. We were in autopilot. Our eyes followed the dirt path as it parted the lush grassy hillside ahead. This would be the biggest climb yet, but we were up for it. We knew were close.
We marched onward and as we reached the top, a progressively strong breeze set off what seemed like a choreographed waltz in the meadow that surrounded us. The views from the top of this hill were some of the best our trek had to offer and the majority of mile 13 would consist of a barely visible trail between a pasture of tall grass with Coltrell Flat somewhere in the center. It looked like something out of the Land Before Time.
The Johnston Ridge Trail
Poplar Creek Canyon Junction | Elevation 2,365 feet
As we made another short ascent, we reached an intersection (mile 14) with a sign that read 'HOT SPRING'; the arrow pointed north. The reassurance that we had almost arrived to our destination was welcomed and after taking a quick photo, we made moves away from Sespe Creek and onto the Johnston Ridge Trail which followed Poplar Creek. Just half a mile later, We had reached the ironically titled Cold Water Fork and as the trail crossed over the now negligible creek, I decided to stick my hand in the water. It was warm.
The Sespe Hot Springs Trail
Sespe Hot Spring Trail Junction | Elevation 2,643 feet
At mile 15, we had reached another Fork and the final creek crossing. It was here that our prior research had indicated the Johnston Ridge trail would continue to climb out of the canyon (an adventure we had hoped try out another time) while the Sespe Hot Spring Trail would follow the eastern side of this ridge. However looking around, we could see some really nice camp sites. We followed the trail through some surprisingly dense bush and popped out in a wide open canyon. A group of palm trees stood out in the distance and I knew we had reached our oasis.
CAMPING NEAR SESPE HOT SPRINGS
Sespe hot Springs Camp Site | Elevation 2,700 feet
We had made it to the Springs at 4 o'clock PM where saw a couple of backpackers nestled under the Palm Trees in what looked like the best site available. We introduced ourselves and found out that Joey and Spencer were locals who had been there dozens of times. They noted that the only filterable water was just a quarter mile upstream and was much cooler than its sulfur instilled counterpart. We thanked them for the information and finally parked our gear just 200 feet south of their location near the water. We set up our tent and sat inside to avoid the bugs and the heat, but we were completely exposed and the sun would not go down for another hour.
Moments later, my girlfriend noted that a bug was inside of the tent. At first I dismissed the remark as I scrolled through photos we had taken during the day but when she called for my attention again, I turned to see a massive tick crawling on the tent floor. I looked around for something to smash it with but its exoskeleton seemed to be impervious. I ended up having to wrap it with a bandana and twist it like I was trying to ring out moisture. After three attempts, it finally stopped moving and I threw it out of the tent only to see a black widow climbing onto our tent fly, which I quickly flicked off. There we sat; dirty, hot, and confined. It was a freaking paradise.
After enjoying a well deserved dinner, we decided to take our wine down stream to see if we could find cooler pools since we could only stand the intense heat of the ones near our tent for moments at a time. We found a small pool with two strange looking men wearing nothing but bath robes. We said hi and kept our distance. Within minutes, the awkward silence was broken by one of the men. He asked us what we were drinking and offered to share his plastic bottle of rum with us. We kindly refused and left shortly after.
FINDING A GOOD POOL
The next morning we decided to follow the stream even further down. We were determined on finding a comfortable pool with some privacy. The route was a little tricky, and we often needed to negotiate fallen brush, but within a quarter of a mile, we had found an 8 foot pool with about 2 feet of depth. The temperature was perfect and there were no strange dudes in sight! We very quickly realized that this pool was closer to the Fork we had passed before, which featured a few shaded camp sites as well as opportunity for hammock. We agreed that if we ever came back, it would be to camp there.
After an hour, we decided to return to camp and pack so that we could spend the rest of our morning drinking coffee at our new resort before high tailing it out of there. We returned to a slight sprinkle and the warm creek water below perfectly contrasted the cool moisture from above.
GETTING BACK HOME
Within minutes of setting out, the light drizzle became showers and we nervously adjusted our layers. I knew that we weren't expecting a down pour so flooding was out of the picture, but if the moisture lasted for the extent of our hike back, we would probably be uncomfortable and in low spirits. The showers stopped shortly after we made it back to Sespe Creek and we were left with the scent of fresh rain and vibrant cloud work.
There was really no destination or deadline since we had planned on spending one more night in the wild and empty campsites riddled the trail. However trekking back to Bear Creek Trail Camp seemed ideal, so that the last push for the trail head would be short and sweet. Plus, Joey and Spencer had said that they were going to spend the night there and they seemed like good company.
At around 3 o'clock PM, we had reached Bear Creek where we saw our friends. We spent the evening laughing over an imaginary campfire with a few drinks and the following morning we decided to hike out together. They schooled us on a number of other great adventures in and around the Los Padres National Forest and by the time we had made it to the cars, we were ready for more.
Distance (from trail head to hot spring) : 15.6 miles
Commulative Distance (out-and-back) : 31 miles
Elevation gain (to hot springs): 2,142 feet
Total Elevation gain : 4,797 feet
Trail Difficulty: Hard.
Class 1 marked trail for most of the route
Trail includes 10 creek crossings, rattle snakes, and poison oak.
The only real difficulty is the sheer mileage from trail head to the hot springs, but its worth it!
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