Located just north of Ojai, Sespe Wilderness is the largest wilderness area within Los Padres National Forest, occupying 342 square miles. Sespe Creek cuts through this land and the adjacent trail offers great views of a wide valley and scenic creek. The trail starts from Piedra Blanca trailhead near Rose Valley Falls and leaves the dense green of the bays, oaks, and chaparral for grassland plains that feel surprisingly southwestern. Scattered groves along the creek provide shade for camping and picnicking. The creek has several warm-water swimming holes to enjoy. As if that were not enough to justify the trek, there are also hot springs feeding into the creek. Willett Hot Springs is 9.5 miles from the trailhead and Sespe Hot Springs is 15.5 miles away. Willett Hot Springs can be visited as a long 19-mile day hike, or as a more reasonable overnight backpacking adventure.
If those distances intimidate you, do not rule out a visit to Sespe Creek. While shallow, the water in the creek is so pleasant for swimming that you could have an enjoyable time without going all the way to the hot springs. That is, you could hike one mile, two miles, four miles, and so on, and find a nice place to enjoy a picnic, a swim, and maybe a night of camping before returning to your vehicle. The 19-mile commitment necessary to visit the hot springs is not required to enjoy Sespe Creek.
The water in Sespe Creek can warm by twenty degrees over the course of the day, making the temperature perfect for an afternoon swim. For this reason, April through June is the best time to visit Sespe Creek. While springs feed the creek year-round, water levels in the fall may be too low for good swimming.
Hiking on Sespe River Trail
The trail is fairly straightforward, with a few exceptions that warrant explanation. From the Piedra Blanca parking lot, take the trailhead that starts to the left of the bathrooms. Start hiking east and you will soon come to two creek crossings. In the spring when the water is high, rock hopping is required. Continue along the north bank of the creek, heading downstream toward the hot springs. The trail is straight and level as it charges into the grasslands of Sespe Wilderness. You will pass over a few rises before arriving at Bear Creek Campground. This is the halfway point to Willett Campground and common turn around point for day hikers.
From Bear Creek Campground, the trail crosses over to the south side of the creek. The crossing is easy to miss. If you realize you are walking on a path that is too faint to be the trail, double back and look for the point where the trail crosses the creek near the east-most fire ring. A mile downstream, the trail crosses back over to the north side.
From here, the trail is less level. While the difference in elevation between the trailhead and the destination is minimal, the trail winds up and down numerous hillsides crossing several dry seasonal streams that flow into Sespe Creek. A 2006 wildfire burned areas along Sespe Creek and the remnants of burned chaparral are hidden amongst the regrowth. Press on past Oak Flat Camp and Ten Sycamore Flat Camp to Willett Campground. These campgrounds are not signed, so use your judgment and the map below.
After descending into the grove of trees along the creek near Willett Campground, a trail marker will direct you to cross over to the south side. This will seem counter-intuitive, as the hot springs are up the mountain to the north. Cross over the creek and follow the trail. It will soon cross back over to the north side of the creek. From here, follow the spur doubling back upstream. You will pass an abandoned building and a stone chimney that stands alone in the grass field. Follow the narrow trail as it climbs up the mountain to the springs. It is 0.6 miles from Willett Campground to Willett Hot Springs, and much of this trail is fairly steep. The trail ends at the hot springs, where a large rubber tub filled with teal water awaits, eager to soak your weary muscles.
Camping on Sespe River Trail
Backcountry camping in Sespe Wilderness is free and easy, and there is plenty of it along Sespe Creek between the Piedra Blanca trailhead and Willett Hot Springs (and beyond). Traditional carry-in carry-out rules apply, but backpackers may pitch a tent wherever they like. Four wilderness campgrounds are located along the creek, each with a few clear places to put up a tent and build a fire. Beyond the mapped sites, are many more places where people have clearly camped in the past. This makes it easy for you to camp in several private locations along the creek.
A permit is needed for campfires and stoves. The fire permit is free and requires only that you agree to a few safety terms:
- Clear flammable material away from the fire a minimum of five feet in all directions
- Have a shovel available for preparing and extinguishing campfires
- Have a responsible person observing the fire at all times
- Extinguish campfire with water, using the drown, stir, and feel method
Print this permit, fill it out, and bring it with you on your hike.
Wood is fairly abundant and gathering it is permitted. Numerous fire rings have already built along the creek, allowing backpackers to minimize their impact and avoid wasting time destroying the grasslands to create a safe area for a fire. When picking a spot to start a fire, look for a place where someone has already had one. Fire ring seems to be built in just about every desirable place.
About fifty feet from Willett Hot Springs is a single campsite and a fire ring. The 0.6-mile long trail up to the springs from Sespe Creek is steep, and can feel even steeper after nine miles of backpacking, so you may wish to camp below. Fortunately, several pleasant sites are located beneath the 0.6 miles spur. This is the area know as Willett Campground. You may set up a tent here and enjoy the comforts of shade and proximity to a viable water supply (which needs to be filtered). From the creek it is easy to walk up to the hot springs and back in a bathing suit, so spare yourself the hike up to the springs will all your gear, and claim one of the nicer spots down along the creek.
This map, posted at the trailhead, provides a good references for distances along the trail:
An adventure pass is required to park your vehicle at the trailhead. No backcountry permit is needed to camp in the Sespe Wilderness but a free fire permit should be obtained if you wish to have a campfire or stove. Bikes are not allowed, but dogs are welcomes on leashes, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: Take the 101 North to Ventura and take exit 70 B for Route 33. Drive north on Route 33 for 11.5 miles to the city of Ojai. Because Route 33 bends through downtown, it is actually shorter (and faster) to turn off the 33 and then back on it. Turn left on Baldwin Road (Route 150) and after a short two blocks make the right onto La Luna Avenue. Drive north for two miles and make a left to return to the 33. (If you miss the turn for Baldwin Road, you can make a later turn to stay on the 33.) Continue northeast on Route 33 for 13 miles as the road enters Los Padres National Forest and climbs up the mountain. Turn right at the turnoff for Rose Valley on Forest Route 5N24. Drive past Rose Valley Falls and Middle Lion Campground, taking the road 5.6 miles to the end at Piedra Blanca Trailhead.
Trailhead address: Rose Valley Road (Forest Route 5N24), Los Padres National Forest, Maricopa, CA 93252
Trailhead coordinates: 34.5605, -119.1648 (34° 33′ 37.79″N 119° 09′ 53.27″W)
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