03 January 2015

Sespe: Willett Hot Springs

Los Padres National Forest




DAY 1 | DAY 2

(Day 1 of 2) Bernard and I are heading into the Sespe to reclaim a garden gnome called Jeff from the wilderness. It is halfway to the hot spring, so we are dropping by there too because it seems like a good time to do so. Also, it is hard to justify the trip just for the garden gnome. Bernard has never been to the hot spring and I have only been this last summer, it should be a completely different experience. I was hoping to do such a trip with a day hike to Hines Peak in between coming and going, but Bernard's schedule does not allow that. There are only a few parking spots in the lot as we pull up at a fairly lazy hour. A few early risers are already finishing their hike out.

eastern view over the river cut
We go this way. Looking east over the gentle land the river cuts through.

Piedra Blanca rising to the north
Piedra Blanca pokes out from the chaparral to the north with Pine Mountain behind it. Some will be going to or past it instead.


The air is crisp as we start. The north facing canyons like Lion seem to collect a lot of cold air and today there is a layer of ice over some spots in the creek and up onto the dirt on the far side where the trail crosses. More ice hangs down from a few of the rocks. A small trail can be found wandering into Lion Canyon and provides a brief exploration. The frozen leaves crunch underfoot in a different way than when they were dry. Poison oak hides as twigs all along the track. After crossing Lion, we cross over the split Sespe River and leave Piedra Blanca to its own desires. We have passed a half dozen groups of returning hikers already as we turn down the old river road.

mustache of ice
A rock with an ice mustache.

woody looking half circle fungus
Dried mushrooms from last year burst from some sage.

sages on the north side of the river
The first part of the trail has some sweeping open areas.

It is much warmer on the south facing river bank, making it a very pleasant hiking temperature. There are beautiful pools along the way. The smell of a campfire draws attention the to occupation of one of the nicer pools. We are passing fewer groups hiking out now, but the numbers are still surprising. Some of the equipment is surprising as well including a few lugging gallon jugs of water just in case the river is not flowing, I suppose. I am mostly struck by the old styles of equipment with new materials. I probably just do not spend enough time observing what is available at Big 5.

straight stretch of Sespe River
A spot where we can see the water in the bottom of the valley.

pool among red rocks like pillars
Some reddened rocks that stand like pillars by another swimming hole.

We grab the gnome just before Bear Creek then cross over the river. Some of the trail on the far side is very rough and I wonder what route the stock takes. There is even a single small tree a couple feet up to climb over, the only one on the trail. We cross back over and are into the section where the trail wraps around tributaries and over hills, so the route is no longer very direct.

a big curve
Looking back over the first climb after the river crossings.

hard layers sticking out of the general land
Harder layers of sandstone sticking out into a hogback.

high trail around the edge of the river bank
Looking forward, the trail following the old road drifts around the outside of a large curve.

panorama of the canyon
The light changes substantially around the canyon we get late into the afternoon.

The moon is nearly full and rises before the sun has gone down. We meet one last set of hikers looking for a particular site along the side of one of a curve. We worry about how many people will be there considering the volume of people hiking out on Saturday. Over one last hill, the road up to the hot spring and another up to a cold spring become visible while the old road crosses the river and climbs again on the other side. There is a large group camped at the crossing. They seem not to be interested in the hot spring since they direct us along the map route, crossing the river twice, rather than the more usable route around the edge.

moon rising above a few still lit mountains
The shadows are getting long as the moon rises.

Topatopa Mountains
Looking up Red Reef Canyon to the Topatopa Mountains.

high meadows dot the canyon sides
Looking around the canyon at the potreros.

We arrive with sunset and debate camping down in the sand, where the ground can be shaped to our liking and comfort, or up in the camp, where it is noticeably warmer. It is quickly getting cold and warmer wins out. There are three other groups of three in the camp, one in the cabin, one in the barn, and one in tents on a flat. One group goes up with a Ball jar of something as we settle into some supper. I am not feeling much like going up to the spring in the cold before supper, but after I am feeling at least like having a look. We can always say it is too cold and we will not even have to share the tub as the other group returns.

There are two pairs sharing the little campsite by the spring. Those backpackers I know wish people would stop using this site, but it is clearly a completely different set that come down here for the most part. We pick our way up to the tub along the hot creek, where the now empty Ball jar has been left to break and cause injury, but the tub is empty. Moonlight and sulfur all to ourselves. We are glad we decided to come up after all. After a long soak, the cold no longer makes us cold as we tuck into sleeping bags under the stars that are already getting wet from heavy dew.

Continue reading: day 2




©2015 Valerie Norton
Posted 19 January 2015


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