If you want to see big, scary animals and you don't want to work too hard for it, then this is the place. With perfect camping weather, a surprising abundance of large wildlife and located just a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Sespe Hot Springs is a great backpacking destination.
Top Photo: Doc Searls
Why Visit? Mountain lions, condors, bears, bighorn sheep and the hottest hot springs in California, oh my. Hiking in the Sespe Wilderness is like stepping back in time to before Southern California was mostly urban sprawl.
Most of the hiking here is relatively easy so, combined with the good weather and dramatic scenery, it's a good area for first timers, or more experienced outdoors types looking for a relaxing trip. You can easily update the adventure quotient by picking more challenging routes or just trying for longer distances.
When To Go: Fall, winter and spring. Sespe gets brutally hot during the summer and the creek is prone to drying up since we're experiencing a mega drought. Check the weather in nearby Fillmore for a good approximation of current conditions in this wilderness. Frazier Park sits at a higher elevation and Ojai is closer to the ocean, so both tend to be a bit cooler.
Getting There: There's three possible hiking routes into Sespe Hot Springs — from the Piedra Blanca Trailhead to the west, Mutau Flats from the north or down Tar Creekfrom the south. That last route utilizes an old, unmarked trail and appears to require hikers to traverse dangerous vertical descents and swim through flooded gorges. We plan to map it in the near future, but for the time being your best, easiest option is to park at Piedra Blanca and hike the 19.5 miles to the springs.
Along that route, water is readily available at least once every few miles and the terrain is relatively easy. You'll pass through Willett Hot Springs, which is a good place to take an overnight break, being approximately half way. Willett's springs (left photo, credit Jeff Edwards) are disappointing, composed of a gross, algae-filled rubber tub set in a muddy defile and the area is prone to overcrowding on weekends. To get to the springs, turn left (north) up the sandy bar in the river and follow the path until you reach a stone chimney. The springs are up a steep hill, about a half mile further. If you turn right at the chimney, you'll reach a cabin with bunkbeds (pass the derelict cabin and walk a few hundred yards further). Staying here is first come first serve. If you want a more isolated camping experience, leave the trail and camp in one of the flat areas along the river before or after. There's many established spots, most with stone fire rings already built.
We haven't done the Mutau flats route, but it's shorter at 9.5 miles one way. Trouble is, there's no water along that route and, while it's downhill the whole way in, it's uphill the whole way out. That'll be brutal if it's hot, make sure you take loads of water.
What To Take With You: If you don't count the brutal summer heat, Sespe has fairly mild weather. It rains very infrequently and rarely gets below freezing, even on winter nights. As such, you don't really need any special equipment. Seriously, this hike does not require an REI shopping spree, just pick up a few basics, wear comfortable clothes and you'll be good.
Adventure Pass — Required to park at any of the access points. You can buy them at the Ojai ranger station day of, or order them online (allow a couple weeks notice for shipping). It's $5 a day or $35 a year and the proceeds go to the upkeep of wilderness areas like this one, so consider it money well spent.
Comfortable Shoes — That's right, we said shoes. Hiking boots are great, if you already have a pair that are broken in and fit, but there's no need to go out and buy a new pair just for this trip. Boots are a whole separate topic we'll cover in depth at some point. Just wear something that has enough tread on the bottom to give you good footing on loose and slick surfaces and which you know through experience won't give you blisters if you're walking in them all day.
Tincture of Iodine 2% — Forget expensive, failure prone purification pumps or other fancy nonsense, just pick up a little bottle of Iodine from a drug or grocery store and put two drops in a gallon of water to kill any bugs that might be in there. Such a small amount doesn't really effect the taste, but does the job.
Water Bottles — Pack enough so each person can carry about a gallon, hiking in the direct sun, while carrying weight can be exhausting and there's a few places where it's several miles between available water sources. Old two-liter soda bottles or whatever work fine, there's no need for anything fancy.
Fire Permit — Observe local advisories about fire permissibility, but regardless, you need to print out, sign and carry this permit with you. It's free, but failing to have it with you results in a hefty fine.
Sleeping Bag — Even a 50-degree night can be chilly, but virtually any sleeping bag can deal with those conditions. Consult Fillmore's weather forecast, then pack something that's rated to 10 or 20 degrees colder.
Sleeping Pad — Sleeping on the cold, hard ground sucks. I carry a Thermorest NeoAir, which is like a bed that fits in your pocket, but it's pricy. Cheap pads are better than nothing. A lot better.
Layers — No need to go out and buy any new clothes, just take an extra pair of good socks, wear a pair of comfortable pants that don't restrict your movement and put stuff on your upper body that you can take off and put on as temperatures change. Nights get chilly, but not frigid, so a thick sweater or light jacket is just fine.
Food — Take stuff you know how to prepare and the means to prepare it. We'll cover this topic in greater depth in the future, but our favorite freeze-dried backpacking meals right now are Mountain House ProPaks. Plan on cooking breakfasts and dinners and pack lunches you can just eat as they come out of your pack. Hiking is hungry work.
Shovel — A little plastic trowel works just fine. You'll need one to legally have a campfire (extinguish it by burying it) and you'll need a shovel to dig a scat hole too.
Trash Bags — Pack out what you pack in. If you see any trash, pick that up and carry it out too.
Sunscreen/Block/Hat/Sunglasses — It's Southern California, you know this already.
What To Watch Out For: If the river's running, you'll need to ford it several times. Any time you're around water, shoes you don't mind getting wet are a good idea. Tevas work great, as do Vibram Five Fingers. You'll want those in the springs too.
While hiking up here, I've been attacked by a mountain lion once, seen two others, had a bear come traipsing through camp and nearly stepped on the largest rattlesnake I've ever seen.
These mountains have the best bear hunting in California, the population is just that dense. They're black bears, so they just want your food (take a bear bag or canister, know how to use it) and make a lot of noise if one gets close to you. Not a huge concern.
Lions are another matter. Keep children supervised and close to you at all times, especially at dawn, dusk and at night, when the lions are active. Keep dogs on leash during those times too, but never leave a tethered dog alone, doing so makes them easy prey. If you're hiking in a group, you have nothing to worry about. Solo hikers should exercise a little more caution, be aware of your surroundings at all times and, if a lion does make an appearance, offense is the best defense. Attack that sunofabitch like your life depends on it, it does. The population here has boomed since hunting them was banned across California in 1991.
Rattlesnakes are much less of a concern. I promise they really don't want to bite you. Just watch where you're putting your feet and consider either rattlesnake training or vaccinations for your dog. Keep tents zipped and don't unroll sleeping pads or bags until you're ready to get into them. Tall boots and long pants help too. If you are bit, remain calm and get back to your car, then drive to Ojai's hospital. A rattlesnake bite probably won't kill you, but it will ruin your day.
What To Do Once You're There: Hang out in the hot springs (above)! They emerge at several points in a large valley, forming a creek that runs down to the Sespe. At their source, they're the hottest hot springs in California, measuring 194 degrees Fahrenheit. That's far too hot for bathing, so what you do is find a swimming hole in the creek that feels right to you. They get cooler the further downstream you go.
If you chose your camping spot wisely, you'll benefit from all the geothermal activity and sleep on a warm surface. The best spot — located under a stand of palm trees — has warm ground, as do other obvious places further up the valley. If you spot a place someone's camped before, it's probably gonna have warm ground. You won't necessarily feel that during the heat of the day, but as night falls, the ground just doesn't cool off. Erecting a tent, even in mild weather, helps capture and retain that heat.
Photo:Steven & Marta Bakos
The bighorns live in the mountain crags to the north and east of the springs. They come down to the valley floor to graze on the grass during the day, returning to the steep cliffs at dusk where the mountain lions have a harder time getting to them. Keep your dog on-leash if they're around, even the big rams would probably just run away, but I wouldn't want to see what'd happen if they didn't. There is a lion that seems to have permanently set up shop in this valley, scan the cliffsides at dawn and dusk and you might get to see it hunting!
If you're lucky, you might even spot a condor circling in a thermal. This is where they were re-introduced to the wild in 1992 after going extinct in 1987. If you see a very large black bird slowly circling above you, odds are it's a condor.