Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2013

Trail Quest: Sespe River Trail

Sespe Creek is one of two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in our local area, the other is the Sisquoc River in the San Rafael Wilderness. Sespe Creek starts in the mountains near Potrero Seco Camp, close to the border between Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, and flows south and east joining the Santa Clara River 55 miles later near Fillmore.

Sespe River Trail follows Sespe Creek for roughly 20 of those miles as it passes through the Sespe Wilderness. Sespe River Trail can be accessed several different ways, the two most common are from the trailhead at Piedra Blanca and the trailhead at Dough Flat via Alder Creek Trail. Highlights on the trail include two nearby hot springs and the scenery along Sespe Creek.

To get to the Piedra Blanca trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north and continue past Wheeler Gorge. The road climbs its way out of the Matilija Creek drainage, and just as it starts to level out you’ll want to look for the turnoff to Rose Valley on your right.

Rose Valley Road continues east and dead ends at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. There are several well marked turnoffs along Rose Valley Road leading to nearby Rose Valley and Middle Lion Campgrounds. The drive from Santa Barbara is roughly an hour and a half. An adventure pass is required to park or camp in this part of the National Forest.

During the 1960s and 1970s the road continued unpaved past the Piedra Blanca trailhead, through what was then Lion Campground, and followed Sespe Creek downstream to just before the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. The road provided access to the hot springs as well as supported a number of car camping destinations before it was closed in the late 1970s. Sespe River Trail follows the old road bed most of the way and is in generally good shape.

Condor Trail follows Sespe River Trail from Alder Creek Trail to Gene Marshal-Piedra Blanca Trail. The 421-mile long through-hike route starts in the south at Lake Piru, traverses the southern and northern portions of the Los Padres National Forest, and ends at Botcher’s Gap in the Monterey Ranger District. Within the National Forest the route utilizes existing trails and roads.

The trailhead at Dough Flat is reached from Fillmore by way of Goodenough Road and unpaved Squaw Flat Road. From the trailhead at Dough Flat it’s about 7.5 miles along Alder Creek Trail to Sespe River Trail.

At about 10.5 miles from Dough Flat, Sespe River Trail arrives at Johnson Ridge Trail and the turn off for Sespe Hot Springs. From the Piedra Blanca trailhead this same intersection is about 13.75 miles, which is why some people will choose Squaw Flat Road and the overgrown trail through Alder Creek drainage in order to save a few miles.

Because of the distances involved, a visit to the hot springs is best done as part of a backpacking trip.

From Sespe River Trail, Johnson Ridge Trail follows Hot Springs Canyon north and arrives at Sespe Camp a half-mile later. The site has a picnic table, fire pit, and nearby outhouse, each with its own cement foundation harking back to the days of when it was a car camping destination.

From Sespe Camp, Johnson Ridge Trail continues another half-mile before starting its climb away from the creek. It’s here that you’ll want to leave Johnson Ridge Trail and continue to the right, upstream along the creek another half-mile to the hot springs. Here, the canyon opens up and reveals a more spartan and rocky terrain evocative of the Palm Springs area. Introduced palms and cactus add to the effect, and completing the vision, if one is lucky, are bighorn sheep.

Reduced by hunting and diseases transmitted from livestock grazing, bighorn sheep were last seen in Los Padres National Forest in 1914. The sheep one can see today were relocated from the San Gabriel Mountains in the mid-1980s in an effort rebuild their population.

Past the palm trees, the trail arrives at the hot springs. There are actually several distinct springs that amazingly issue directly from the rock walls and flow into the creek. The temperature of the water from the hottest spring is in the 190 degree range and is unsuitable for soaking. However, because the flow of the springs fills the creek one need only hike back downstream until they find a pool to their liking.

Continuing along Sespe River Trail, about half-mile west of the Johnson Ridge Trail intersection, Sespe River Trail arrives at Coltrell Flat. Coltrell, a corruption of Cottriel, is the former site of George Cottriel’s homestead. A camp at Coltrell Flat can be found under the oaks.

At about 13.75 miles from Dough Flat and 10.5 miles from the Piedra Blanca trailhead, the trail arrives at Hartman Camp. Although no longer listed on some maps, this former car camping site, still has a stove and picnic table with cement foundations, neither in use, the later now crushed under a fallen oak tree. The camp is situated under several large oaks and has a fire ring.

A mile west of Hartman, Sespe River Trail arrives at the turnoff for Willet Hot Springs. Here a side trail crosses the creek and arrives at Willet Camp. The camp is near the former homestead of Jaklin Willett, who developed the property during the late 1800s. One can still find what looks like the fireplace left from the homestead.

The side trail continues west past Willett Camp, and climbs up a small canyon offering some nice views of Sespe Creek and the surrounding area before arriving a half-mile later at Willet Hot Springs. These springs also issue forth from a rock wall, but the water is in a temperature range more conducive to soaking. The waters are channeled by hoses to a large plastic basin. The site is more enclosed and shaded than Sespe Hot Springs, but because of the higher traffic to the area can also feel less rustic.

Along much of Sespe Creek one will find various improvised camps reflective of the amount of usage the trail sees each year.

At about 14.75 miles from Dough Flat, and 9.5 miles from the Piedra Blanca, Sespe River Trail arrives at the junction for Red Reef Trail, which crosses Sespe Creek, and climbs south, away from the creek, passing near the Topatopa Mountains on its way toward the upper Ojai Valley.

The next designated camp along Sespe River Trail is Oak Flat, about 7 miles from the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. Oak Flat is reached by a side trail that crosses Sespe Creek to the south. Oak Flat has two picnic tables and a fire ring.

At about the 4.5-mile mark from the Piedra Blanca Trailhead one arrives at Bear Creek Camp. This broad sandy site under some Cottonwoods has several different fire rings to choose from.

This year the water along Sespe Creek is low and so all of the crossings are fairly easy to cross. In wetter years many of the crossings can be more challenging and so it’s best to check with the Forest Service regarding current conditions. Sespe River Trail is unshaded much of the way, so plan accordingly.

The first section of Condor Trail from Lake Piru to the Piedra Blanca Trailhead covers about 32 miles. For those interested in following the Condor Trail route through the southern Los Padres National Forest in a single, continuous hike, the Piedra Blanca trailhead can serve as a potential place for resupply support.

In addition to the Forest Service and USGS maps of the area, a good resource for the trails in the Sespe Wilderness is Tom Harrison’s Sespe Wilderness Trail Map.

This article originally appeared section A of the March 29th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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