Sespe River Trail to Willett Hot Springs

Basics: This scenic 20+ mile (roundtrip) hike follows Sespe Creek through one of Southern California’s most interesting and rugged wilderness areas. At the end of this long hike is a 100-degree hot spring- great for soaking in after the trek. There are numerous campsites near Willett Hot Springs. There are also many great camping opportunities along Sespe Creek – making this an ideal backpacking trip for anyone who is unsure about how far they feel like hiking. This wilderness is great in spring, summer or late fall. Summer is hot, but may be okay as long as the Sespe still has water in it.

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: I’ve wanted to visit Willett and Sespe Hot Springs for many years (since living in SLO for college), but never got around to it. Finally, I suggested to Rob that we go backpacking to Willett for the weekend. We tossed the idea around, then decided we were too lazy to pack up all the camping gear and plan all the food and stuff. Rob’s crazy idea: “Let’s just do it as a day hike. It’s only 10 flat miles to get there.” Turns out, those 10 miles are not flat.  It’s pretty difficult. In fact, we saw about two dozen people backpacking out there- we were the ONLY day hikers.

Two nights before our trip, a storm came through and dusted snow on all the peaks around Carpinteria! I was disappointed when most of it melted by about 9:00 am the next morning. Luckily, the Sespe Wilderness still had a few inches of snow when we began our hike! The recent storm left muddy trails and higher flows in the river, but the beauty of the snow capped Topatopa Mountains and the fresh air made up for it.

We began hiking around 7:30 am. Since daylight savings hadn’t started, I was a little concerned about making it back before dark. We easily made it past the first few creek crossings. Before we knew it, we were passing tents and sleepy campers at Bear Creek Camp (4.4 miles from the trailhead). Shortly after, we crossed a more difficult section of the Sespe. There were exposed rocks in the creek, but it took a few minutes of navigating to make it across to the south side. The trail climbs and descends small hills, but generally follows the creek through a nice wooded riparian area. Eventually we crossed back over to the north side, and stayed there for the rest of the hike. As we climbed higher, the terrain became more open, more scenic and much more dry. The trail still follows the creek, but is quite a bit higher many places.

The Sespe has a history of flooding and washing away trails, camps, roads and people. (In 1969, six boys and several adults were swept away in a horrible tragedy. See the Outside Magazine article link at the bottom of the page.) It makes sense that much of the trail would be up a little higher, out of flood plain. This allows for some pretty epic views. From the higher vantage points, it’s also easy to spot the many campsites along the river.

At about 7 miles we could see Oak Flat Camp below us and across the river. I spotted green grass, oak trees and picnic tables. This looked like a pretty nice campsite.

We continued onwards past the junction with the Red Reef Trail (8.7 miles from the trailhead). This trail heads up towards Ladybug Camp, Hines Peak and the Topatopa Range. From this junction it was a little over a mile to Willett Camp.

To get to the hot springs (and the camp), follow the trail on the northern side of the creek. We looked at our map and mistakenly assumed that we had to cross the creek two more times to follow the trail. I (coordinated as I am) slipped and not so gracefully stomped into knee deep water, soaking socks and boots in the process. At 10 miles into our hike, I kind of freaked out about the idea of hiking back out with sopping wet feet (blisters!!!). Good thing Rob convinced me that the hot spring was close and we’d be fine – my socks would have time to dry while we sat in the spring.  Of course they didn’t, but I also didn’t get blisters.  Wool socks are worth the $$$.

We followed the short trail up a steep canyon to Willett Hot Spring.  Nobody was at the spring when we got there.  We quickly ate lunch, then hopped into the trough to soak in the warm, slightly sulfurous water.  After about 20 minutes, two other guys showed up.  They explained that the tub could be drained, cleaned and re-filled.  It takes almost an hour, so we would not have had time.  Makes sense to clean it if you are camped nearby though.  There was a thin layer of slime at the bottom of the tub so I felt a little bit bad that we hadn’t cleaned it, but they hopped right in and didn’t seem to mind.

The Topatopa Range provided a slightly snowy mountain view through the trees.

After spending about an hour at the hot spring, we gathered our stuff, put our boots back on, and headed out.  We crossed paths with a lot of backpackers on their way to Willett for the weekend.  One guy was particularly concerned about us hiking back out.  He asked if we had enough food.  Rob explained that yes, we had food, plus we had just drank a beer each in the hot spring.  The backpacker was pleased with that answer.

The hike out took about 4 hours and did not seem particularly difficult.  We made it back to the car with over an hour of daylight to spare.  I’m already thinking about our next trip to the Sespe Wilderness!

 

More Info:

Hell in High Water Outside Magazine article about the January 1969 tragedy on the Sespe Creek.

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:

11 thoughts on “Sespe River Trail to Willett Hot Springs”

    1. Hi Nicole. There’s a plug at the bottom of the tub that can be pulled to drain it. There are some brushes tucked away behind the tub that can be used to scrub the bottom. It wouldn’t take much- it’s just a thin film of slime that settles on the bottom. The tub should refill in about an hour once you put the plug back in. Have a great trip!

  1. I read some reviews that the Willett springs are 9.5 miles, others 15-17 miles. I’d like to know which is accurate. I want to take the hike and am slowly gathering info on the place, maps, etc.

    1. Hi Jack- Willet Hot Spring is around 9.5 miles from the Rose Valley trailhead. We hiked it in one day and it was just under 20 miles round trip.

      If you hike 15 miles down the same trail, you’ll reach Sespe Hot Springs. That trip requires at least a couple of days. Willet and Sespe are quite different, but both are worth a visit.

  2. Has anyone been up lately? Im concerned about drinking water. I have a pump/filter but its been a real dry year again! We are planing a one night trip next weekend.

    1. When I hiked this back in March, and again in April, the Sespe Creek USGS gage upstream was reading just 0.6 to 1.2 cubic feet per second. Right now it’s showing 0.08 cfs, which is about a half gallon per second. That probably means it will be hard to find through the cobble substrate, and will likely be stagnant in many places. Some people apparently drink the water from Willet which flows year round, but I wouldn’t. The gage data sheet says “no flow for many days in some years”. Hopefully it will rain soon!

  3. Thanks Rob! I looked at the USGS report but was unsure what the data ment.
    Do you know of any other hikes around 20 miles with water flowing In this area?

    1. Hi Nathan. We haven’t been out hiking in that area for a while, but the following post from David Stillman has some good info. The comments are particularly helpful: http://davidstillman.blogspot.com/2013/04/southern-los-padres-drought-2013.html

      It’s unfortunately just been a crazy dry year. Hopefully we’ll get some rain soon. It’s a little risky and a lot of extra weight, but if you’re not going too far, you could always consider packing in all your water. Good luck!

    1. Hi Patrick. I’m actually not sure – the trail crosses the river so many times. But you’re probably right that it would be somewhere around Bear Campground.

Any thoughts?