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].
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.