Sespe & Willett Hot Springs

  • Updated: April 08, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

April 8th & 9th, 2017
Sespe Hot Springs
16.4 miles, 2000' in
18.2 miles, 2600' out (with a side trip to Willett Hot Springs)

After last weekend's snow climb of Mount Silliman I was tempted to head back to the Sierra again and maybe do Alta or something similar.  However a big storm was predicted to hit (unusually big for April) and Jen and I ended up looking local.

Sespe Hot Springs is located in Los Padres and only a few hours from OC.  Just drive up to Ojai and then drive a bit further along the 33.  Of the three trailheads listed by the forest service Piedra Blanca was was 16 miles each direction and followed the Sespe River which sounded like a nice way to spend 2 days.

Normally we'd drive out the night before (and there are a few campgrounds in the area) but it was a busy week and we ended up doing the 3 ish hour drive early in the morning.  Which did have the major benefit of making LA traffic almost palatable.

We arrived at the Piedra Blanca trailhead and found a large number of cars along with several other groups already getting ready to hike.  I'd been hoping we'd missed spring break and it would be a little quieter but hey...

Also slightly less than encouraging were the signs everywhere letting you know that if you left your phone or wallet in your vehicle don't expect it to be there when you get back.  Jen chipped in that all the dents in her Scion probably kept her stuff safe.

The trailhead has pit toilets and plenty of parking.  When we arrived I realized I'd actually been here years before and slept in my car after an attempt to find a late night bivy spot nearby resulted in my girlfriend and I hiding in the bushes some distance from our car while a group with flashlights prowled through the bushes towards us.  (Technically you're not supposed to camp here but it beats the relationship strife caused by the alternatives.)

The trailhead requires an adventure pass but there are no wilderness permits and campfires are allowed absent other restrictions.

We started hiking around 7 am and promptly lost the trail in the first mile.  It looked like some amount of flooding had happened recently and a lot of the trail down by the water had been obscured and replaced by a large amount of cairns and footprints leading in every direction.

This was also our first boots off crossing.  There was just too much water coming down to cross and stay dry so we plopped down, changed into crocs, and slogged across.  This would be the first of 8 or 9 times we'd have to do this in each direction.

There were a lot of people camped along the trail but very few actually walking this early.  There were nice campsites to be found all over the place and most had prominent fire rings.  Other than the amount of people it looked like almost ideal camping.

The second crossing was about 4 miles in near where a large collection of folks had set up camp.  We again couldn't find any way across without taking off our boots and decided to try following the north side of the river and either find a better crossing or wait for the trail to cross back again.

There was a strong use trail for a while but that just led to some more remote campsites and one couple who stared after us rather awkwardly obviously having come down here for some private time.  And then cross country terrain with flood debris and a random mix of boot prints.

We eventually figured we were wasting more time being off trail than we were saving by not taking our boots off and waded across again.  The water did feel really nice on our feet.

It took a bit to get back to the trail and as it turned out we shouldn't have bothered as it rejoined the streambed soon after we clawed our way up a steep embankment.

The trail was pretty good in most places though later in the season I could see the foxtail plants being a real pain.  And it's almost all downhill until the end so we settled into a nice pace between the constant boot off crossings.

At the 10 -ish mile mark we found the turnoff to Willet and a rather large camp.  We decided we'd visit the spring it on the way out so we'd have more daylight to hopefully enjoy Sespe.

The last few crossings are close enough we kept our crocs on between them.  And on the advice we'd read online we filled up water at the last crossing before the turnoff to Sespe which just so happened to be the one with the boisterous skinny dippers a short distance away.

With so many people camped up stream from us and the amount of toilet paper I found in random bushes I was glad we had the filter along.

At about the 14.5 mark there was a signed turnoff heading up the canyon towards Sespe Hot Spring.

There were some nice campsites down fairly low but the water was cold so we continued up.

They have these pit toilets in a few spots along the river (we noticed two).  Nice to have considering it can be hard to get far enough from the water depending where you're camped.

This was the lowest of the pools we found at about 2630' where the trail coming up the canyon joins with what appeared to be the Muata Flat / Johnston Ridge Trail coming from above.  The trail passes right over the small pool so there's not much privacy and it's quite a bit cooler than the ones higher up.  There was a group camped here so we kept going up.

This is looking back down the canyon where the pools seemed to be located.  From what I saw the palm trees had the best camp.  Well protected with a huge fire ring inside.  It was also occupied by three rather friendly fellows who filled us in on the location of a few pools and warned us the water coming out at the top was really hot.  They spent the time in the ones below the palms.

We found an existing site about halfway between the palm trees and another occupied site we could see above the top spring.  It was a little closer to the water than I would have preferred but the other options were right on the trail.

We dropped packs at the likely site then explored higher up just to see if there was something better.  Not far up the pools were so hot it was difficult to stick our hands in them.

The water was full of this dark green algae in most places.  And sometimes things like this...

This was the top of the spring and the water coming out was almost too hot to touch.  I found this out the hard way.  For Science!

It does give a nice effect with all the steam rising off the water.  There were a few other spots along the hillside where water was coming out as well.

These were the highest pools I found.  A bit too warm for us and based on the undisturbed algae in them others had felt the same way.

This was our camp pool.  While it could have been a slight bit deeper it was a nice temperature.

The water was so warm we couldn't stay in for long but the wind that had picked up and was cold enough it wasn't overly pleasant to be out of the water.  Still it felt rather nice after carrying the pack all day and we only had to pick a moderate amount of green slime off ourselves when we got out.

It was a bit on the windy side and Jen had her old classic tent along for this trip.  Setup provided minutes of entertainment.

After that we settled in for a pleasant dinner of veggie lasagna.  We could have built a fire in a nearby ring but as we'd been up since 3:30 am and had been hiking all day we settled for just passing out as soon we dinner was over.

The next morning we tried to get back in our pool but found it had grown significantly warmer so my image of sipping coffee from the hot spring wasn't to be.  (It was so hot I couldn't even keep my feet in it and Jen is comparatively downright wimpy when it comes to temperature.)

So we got moving fairly early ish after only a single cup of coffee.  *sigh*

6 miles and several more crossings later we reached the turnoff to Willett.  All of the people we'd seen camped around here the day before had apparently cleared out early so we decided it was worth diverting and seeing what the spring was like.

We followed the use trail on the north side of the river.  From the map it looks like there was actually another turnoff from the south side that we'd missed a short distance to the east but this works.  We did eventually have to cross and then cross back after getting to a slightly crumbly rock traverse.

The crossings were both easy and we were soon tromping uphill towards the spring.

There was an unoccupied campsite at the top of the trail right where it enters the vegetation.

A short wet scramble up brought us to the surprisingly large tub being fed by pipes from the spring above.

I'm guessing the tub predates the wilderness designation in 1992 as it's quite large and didn't have any visible joints.  (According to this people used to be able to drive up here before a flood in the 70s washed out the road.)

The water was a nice temperature and while the bottom was coated in a pale slime that just made it entertaining to slide from side to side.  The smell of sulphur was incredibly strong to the point I was almost gagging a few times but the breeze mostly cleared that away.

We enjoyed the spring for a good long while then packed up and headed back down the trail.  We met a group of guys with several kids in tow as we were coming down the last few switchbacks and another couple at the bottom so it looks like we managed to time it just right.

We could see a cabin off to the east and decided to take a look.

Presumably this was where Mr Willett lived but it's seen better days.

Inside there was an assortment of trash and discarded tent pieces.

We left the cabin 2:30 and after refilling our water at the river the hike out went quickly.  It seemed like most of the crowds were gone though I still saw a good number of occupied camps along the river.

We ended up doing the very last crossing in headlamps and made the cars a little after 8 pm giving us just enough time to get some real food before we had to drive back through LA traffic.

Overall this was a nice trip and one I'd heartily recommend for winter or early spring.  It was already warm in April so I couldn't imagine going in the summer would be very inviting.

We didn't see any mosquitos but we did have a large number of gnats and as of when I'm writing this several days later I have a large amount of really itchy bites.

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  1. You two got close to the real cabin. Maybe next time!

    1. Do you mean the Lagomarsino Cabin? We hadn't really looked in to any of the structures since Sespe was our main target. Is the cabin worth a visit?