13 May 2014

Sespe: Willett Hot Springs

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4

(Day 1 of 4.) I have been wanting to see what the fuss is about concerning Willett and Sespe Hot Springs and the Fishbowls. The hot springs seem to need at least an overnight while the cold water feature can be done in what appears to be a nice loop day hike when the road is open. It is currently closed due to storm damage. A recent article in the local Sierra Club chapter's newsletter, the Condor Call, points out these two desires can be combined into what is one of the authors' (local guide book author Craig Carey and local cartographer Bryan Conant) favorite backpacking circuits. It is billed as a 40 mile loop that is excellent for five days out. I figure I like my days a little over 10 miles, so if it is cut a little differently, it should be a nice four day. The summer heat is starting to take hold, so actually staying at hot springs is seeming less interesting than just seeing them. I estimated the loop to actually be more like 46 miles after getting out the map, but still reasonable in four days. The second day is just 6.6 miles, so it got divided up into the first and new second day. It front loads the trip a little, but the day hike yesterday should help as a shakedown. Camping after helped too, showing my uninsulated inflatable mat has already developed a slow leak somewhere, leaving me to haul out the basic blue that lives in the car. Very disappointing. (On camps, Reyes Peak and Pine Mountain had a few people Monday morning, but were empty by the evening. Middle Lion was nearly full Monday evening.) There are only two cars at the trailhead as we start.

wooden slats with writing on them
There are more choices, but these are the ones that the sign maker saw fit to put on the sign.

The trail starts off crossing the nice flow of Lion Creek, then wanders downstream to cross the Sespe River in two parts before clambering up to meet the old road that is now the trail. The trail is, at first, just a smooth and wide drift looking down on the river. Much of the time, the water cannot be seen, but trees mark its location in the wide valley bottom. When it can be seen, there are large pools with big, smooth rocks that look incredibly attractive for hours of lounging and swimming. At least a few of the old road survey markers still exist. They do not interest me as much as the more interestingly named benchmarks, but I have been known to go after one or two before.

easy walking along Sespe River Trail
One might think we are on easy street.

survey marker at the side of the former road with mountains
Low hills and mountains grace the north side of the river valley. In the foreground is one of the old road survey markers.

long pool along river
A nice, long pool where the trees are thin with interesting rocks in reds and whites for background.

looking up a tributary decorated with red, smooth rock formations
Looking up one dry tributary, the water washed rocks have a rather soft, pillowy appearance.

pools by the side of the old road
Now this looks like a luxury pool with rather good sunning rocks and easy trail side access.

We pass through an old campground with a curious bit of concrete that turns out to be the old toilet. What once offered privacy is now more of a pedestal or stage for the exhibitionist. Crossing the river leads to a moist spot full of poison oak, then climbs up into drier stuff with a spattering of Mariposa lilies. Bhagwan spots a black and white snake slithering into a hiding hole as we pass through a rocky, washed out spot and I am a bit jealous because I have never seen a king snake without orange. Eventually, we cross again and the landscape starts to get a little more rugged as the river valley gets deeper. The slight curves of the old road as it passes tributaries start to grow and gain long drops and climbs.

white Mariposa lily with red spots on the center of the inside of the petals
One of the Mariposa lilies along the side.

cliffs on the sides of the low hills now
The land is getting a little rougher as we progress through a gently sloped meadow.

Starting down into a large tributary valley and looking up the river. A few of the tributaries have mud in them.

huge, airy seed pods hanging from yellow flowers and a bug
These are great, full of airy seed pods and beetles.

Eventually, as we are drifting around the top of another gently rounded meadow before hitting more real downhill, a line of trail can be seen crawling toward the river and up the other side. This is the Red Reef Trail, about a mile before Willett. The main paint on it has vanished and outlines of the lettering remains for deciphering its destinations. One more climb brings us in view of a couple trails heading up the steep hillside.

shiny metal
Make of it what you will. Hines Peak... hum.

I drank my last sip of water at the top, so we grab some when the trail gets 30 feet from the water. It looks like we have just enough time to poke up to the hot spring, then around the cabins at camp, then book it down to Coltrell Flat for the night. A few steps from where we got water, a slapstick points across the river while a pink ribbon waves along a trail that continues on this side. The unofficial trail looks well used and we decide to take it into Willett. It tries to get lost in the rocks and there is a mushy crossing, but we manage and come up near a lonely chimney. Trail leading to the hot spring goes past it, so we turn up that. The climb seems to go up much more than advertised, but eventually levels out in view of a gnarled crease in the mountain with a line of green extending from it. The generally wide old road stops at the creek and it is a little climb up along the water to a huge tub. Tubes lead from one spring to bring in hot water. The rock is pouring out water in a few other spots as well.

corrugated iron in a pile
Corrugated iron and a bed frame mark where there was once a cabin.

white in the stream bed
This certainly looks like it could be hot spring water.

turtle under a log
A bit of wildlife trying to hide under a log.

Willett Hot Spring tub
The tub at Willett Hot Springs with some of the ungathered hot water cascading down a waterfall behind it.

Coming down, I can see an old line zig-zagging up the mountain on the far side. We make a loop around the cabins and chat shortly with the two guys staying in the one considered good. They think they might go down to Sespe tomorrow. Their dog does not seem to think we are good news. The only other person we saw on the trail today told us about them. Bhagwan discovers the water spigot works but the electricity stopped a long time ago. Most of the structures are sagging and getting ready to fall. We then make our way back to the main trail along the sanctioned route only to find there is no apparent dry feet crossing for the river there and end up making the big loop instead. We probably should have taken our boots off and gone for it, two hours have passed by the time we finish at the hot spring and we no longer have enough time to get to camp in light.

rundown house that does not look bad on the outside
This old house does not look bad on the outside, but the inside is sagging badly.

a couple buildings by a fenced field
An old barn and shed by the side of a field.

We make our way quickly along the path that looks like it might have some spots that are tough to follow at night, even with the help of a very bright moon. The camp at the old guard station looks attractive as we pass, but we would rather be further along. We start to notice the tread from a motorbike, which tends to make my jaw muscles work a bit so deep into the designated wilderness. We pass a cairn built high and fat along a bit of trail that is not hard to follow. I ask it why it is, but it does not answer. There is a shoddiness to its construction. We are across all the river crossings and climbing another road section up to a meadow when the light starts to fail. About halfway up, a small bear is grazing, but he takes off in a straight line when he notices us and does not stop until the far side of the river. There is a beautiful moonrise and at the top, we can just see a lovely meadow below.

blurry picture by moonlight of a beautiful view, or it would be if we could see it
Somewhere down there is a camp. This would be a beautiful view, if we could see it.

Coming down, I think there might be a trail, but it is indistinct and seems still a bit too high up. These usually do not turn out, so I leave it and continue, but there is nothing else quite so promising. I start to feel a touch stressed and regret that I was going to put in a couple waypoints from the guide book before starting, but then worried about the GPS battery time and left it. As we start to climb again, we decide to camp at the top if there is a flat. There usually is, but this time there is not. The traffic defined trail turns north and a shadowy sign tells us what would be waiting for us if we continued on the Sespe River Trail. There is a flat maybe a tenth of a mile further and we drop ourselves onto it rather than trying for Sespe Camp, just a few more tenths of a mile, and risk passing it in the moonlight too. We finish the day with over 16 miles hiked.

Continue reading: day 2

©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 18 May 2014


Unknown said...

Colltrell is a tricky one to find in the daytime even if you know where to look. At nighttime it would be really tough. Great trip, looking forward to the rest.

Valerie Norton said...

Even with getting to have a good look around from the top? I think it would have taken a little wiggling around vegetation, but could probably have made it with a way point and some careful stepping by moonlight. We both found perfectly flat beds to not notice the next many hours in anyway, so it all worked out.