Backpacking Sespe Hot Springs

Basics: Sespe Hot Springs is located deep in the Sespe Wilderness. There are three possible access points for reaching the springs, but all require either a ridiculously difficult day hike or a strenuous multi-day trip. The Ojai Ranger District has a useful PDF describing the various trails.  We chose to hike from Piedra Blanca (Rose Valley).  Some of the other access points are only open seasonally.  From Rose Valley, it’s a 16 mile trek to the hot springs.  The best time to visit the area is in the late fall, winter, or early spring, though after a large rainstorm, the multiple creek crossings could be difficult.  Summer can be crazy hot in this area.  Sespe Creek has some great swimming holes, but a 16 mile trek to the hot springs might be a bit much when it’s 100 degrees outside.

Directions to Trailhead: From Ojai, CA, follow Hwy 33 north for approximately 15 miles. Make a right at the signed junction for Rose Valley (and Piedra Blanca). From here, it’s another 5 miles to the trailhead. Follow signs for either Piedra Blanca or Sespe River Trail. It’s a paved road all the way to the parking lot. [Link to trailhead in Google Maps].

Note: GPS based distance is approximate. Download gpx of this route. Download kml of this route.

Trail Description: We set out somewhat early (7:30 am) on the Sespe River Trail.  The first 9.5 miles of our hike followed our previous path to Willett Hot Springs.  We took a break at Bear Camp (4.3 miles in), made it past several creek crossings and reached Willett in about 4 hours.  It was already pretty warm on the trail and it wasn’t even noon yet.  Turns out, I picked the first hot day of the season for this trip.

We ate lunch next to the Sespe Creek near the Willett Camp.  We still had about 6.5 miles to go, so we did not stay long.  From Willett, the trail follows along the edge of a dried up creek bed – part of the Sespe’s flood plain.  We crossed the Sespe several more times in the 3 miles after Willett.

Spotted a kingsnake basking in the sun.

It was really starting to get hot, so I continually dipped my hat in the creek and poured water on my head.  With about 3.5 miles to go, I ran out of water.  The last few miles before reaching Hot Springs Canyon are very dry.  The terrain gets steeper as you turn away from Sespe Creek and climb past a couple of hills.  Knowing what was ahead of us in the final 3 miles, we stopped at one of the last creek crossings to refill our waters.  It was hot just sitting in the shade!  At this point, disaster struck.  The SteriPEN we had planned to use for treating all our water had some kind of meltdown.  It got extremely hot and started to smell like electrical burning.  Rob quickly pulled the batteries out before the thing burst into flames.  [note: the SteriPEN in question, the “Classic” was a few months out of warranty. I contacted the company and sent in the pen – after confirming it was broken they allowed me to upgrade to the SteriPEN Ultra for the difference in retail price – $30. Thanks SteriPEN, the new PEN works great!] We contemplated our options and decided to make the final push to Sespe Hot Springs with the last liter of water that Rob was carrying.  Hot, dry, somewhat miserable hiking.

Oversized cairn on the side of the trail. We added a rock or two to the top.

Eventually we made it to the junction below Hot Springs Canyon.  We turned left and headed up towards the springs.  The trail follows a small creek.  We stopped at the lower Sespe Camp and rested in the shade.  Rob checked the temperature of the creek – it was warm!  We finally made the last half mile push up into the canyon and to our campsite.

We found a spot with established fire rings right below the junction with the Johnston Ridge Trail.  Our campsite was great for several reasons.  There was shade (the upper part of the canyon is much more exposed).  There was also a small creek of cool water (very important considering the main creek was flowing at 100 degrees or so).  Lastly, there was a great little pool built up for soaking in- right next to the campsite!

We boiled water, set up the tent, and relaxed.  It was a little weird drinking warm water in the heat, but it was delicious!  Any liquid is tasty when you’re dehydrated.

In the evening we wandered up to the source of the hot springs.  Sulfurous steaming water pours out of the canyon wall.  The creek is surrounded by rocky outcroppings and cacti.  It’s a hostile environment, but a really interesting place!

This appeared to be the main (hottest) source of water flowing out of Hot Springs Canyon.
Looking down the canyon. There is one shaded campsite under the palms, but we chose to camp a bit further down.
One of the very hot pools – you can see the steam coming off the water.

Back at our campsite we cooked dinner (tacos and wine really hit the spot) and spent some time soaking in the creek.  Eventually, we tried to sleep.  Between the bright moon, the noisy crickets, and the wind which only picked up after dark, we did not sleep exceptionally great.

Our dinner for the night. Delicious!
Warming the tortillas.

Perfect 100-degree pool of water adjacent to our campsite.

In the morning – more time was spent soaking in the creek.  We packed our gear and were back on the trail by 8:30 am.  Unfortunately, it was another hot day, so the hike out was difficult.  We sterilized plenty of water overnight (with the use of tablets) so luckily, hydration was not an issue.  We were back at the car by mid-afternoon.  Exhausting, but memorable weekend.

 

More Info:

Los Padres NF Fire Permit – A fire permit is required for overnight stays. It’s free – just print it out, study it, and sign it. And don’t burn anything down.

There’s a nice water proof tear proof map of the area made by Tom Harrison:

17 thoughts on “Backpacking Sespe Hot Springs”

    1. Hi Sage. We did this trip the weekend of April 20th. Sespe Creek should still have some water come June, but I wouldn’t rely on any of the smaller tributaries. This year is particularly dry (we’ve already had crazy wildfires and it’s only May!) Sespe Hot Springs itself will also have water, but it is hot, a bit sulfurous and doesn’t taste very good. I would check the map, then plan to refill water at the last creek crossing before reaching Sespe Hot Springs. Also, it might be good to call the Forest Service and ask about the conditions before heading out there- it’s going to be a dry summer!

  1. Great description and pictures. We’re taking some Boy Scouts up there this weekend. Piedra Blanca to Bear Creek or Oak flat (depending on the mood of the boys!). Are there any trees in either campsite? I have a new hammock that I’m dying to try out and I want to go tent-less since it’s so warm lately. Thanks!

    Doug

    1. Hello Doug. Both campsites have a number of trees. We actually saw someone with a hammock set up at Bear Creek. Have a great trip!

      1. Great. Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes. You have a really great blog that I’ll check for new ideas for the Scouts. We always need to keep it fresh so the boys stay interested. Happy trails!

  2. Does this trail loop back around to the parking lot or do you need to hike out the same way you came in? Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Jake. This trail follows the river and does not loop back around. It’s best to hike in and out the same way. There are other trails like the Red Reef Trail that split away from the Sespe. It’s possible to do a loop on such a trail, but it would be a multi-day endeavor.

          1. I’m going this Saturday 05/30/2015 and my question is about to used a hammock in the camp site. if is some trees around the camp site.

    1. Ryan,
      There is only a tiny oasis of closely clustered palm trees in the upper part of the canyon, pictured here:

      Palm Tree cluster near Sespe pools

      There’s a shady patch of real trees just a little ways down the canyon, where we camped and the river is still quite warm.

  3. We are looking to hike up in a few weeks. How is the water level? Do we need to take drinking water for overnighter? Is the river flowing still? Thanks

Any thoughts?