Section Hiking The Hot Spring Trail: Santa Barbara To Ojai

  • Updated: February 05, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

February 5th to 9th, 2020
Santa Barbara to Ojai
5 days, 57 miles, 10,300' gain

After my last big excursion Section Hiking The Desert Trail: Mexican Border to Borrego Springs I was eager to get out again on my next PCT 2020 prep hike.

I'd already looked at and discarded the California Coastal Trail for not really being a trail down here in Southern California and the big trek through urban Mecca had me a bit less excited for the next Desert Trail Section. Fortunately I had another prospect and turned my eyes to the Hot Springs Trail National Scenic Trail Proposal.

The idea behind the Hot Springs Trail is a 2,421 mile long distance trail that visits 100 different wild or resort hot spring locations.

Now before you get too excited about that number the author himself explains how he came to 100.


After finding very little route information online I reluctantly ordered the paper guidebook for the first section from Amazon after choking on the $50 pricetag for the complete guidebook.

I'd like to stress that the author put in an impressive amount of work and aside from a few personal quibbles they seem worth the money. I just dislike having a pile of paper guidebooks sitting around gathering dust in my closet especially these days where more often than not I'm out and about.

No digital maps are provided from either the guide or the website so when my guide arrived I sat down for a good hour and banged out the following CalTopo of the Hot Spring Trail Coastal Connect section.


Per the guide Section 1 Santa Barbara to Ojai is 54.3 miles, Section 2 Ojai to Hikertown is108.6 miles, Section 3 Hikertown to Tehachapi is 48.2 miles, and Section 4 Tehachapi to Kernville is 92.7 miles.

Divided up like this they're generally reasonable to section hike and I decided to shoot for Section 1 this week.

The dotted green line is the Pacific Crest Trail since I wanted to see where they overlap. Unfortunately for me Section 3 and part of Section 4 are identical which doesn't fit in well with my not wanting to duplicate what I'll be doing in a few months but that still left Section 1 and 2 as promising potentials.


Planning

Information on this trail is a bit sparse so you're pretty much limited to what I have here or buying the guidebooks. The author doesn't even seem to offer an official GPS of the trail so I had to build my own.

The Hot Springs Trail: Official Guidebook $50 and has the whole trail California to Idaho
Or you can buy the individual sections like I did
The Coast Connect Trail: From Santa Barbara to the Sierras (The Hot Springs Trail) (Volume 1) $12
The High Sierra Hot Springs Trail: Thru-Soaking the Sierra Nevada (The Hot Springs Trail) (Volume 2) $12
The Nevada Trail: Official Guidebook (The Hot Springs Trail) (Volume 3) $12
The Idaho Soaktennial Trail: A Soaker's Rendition of the ICT (The Hot Springs Trail) (Volume 4)
He also offers The Hot Springs Trail Almanac: A Thru-Soaker's Photographic Reference for $30 but I don't really see the need for that one.

So if you want to spend money go to town. Or you can base off the maps I've made (and if anyone wants to lend me a copy of the other 3 sections I'll happily build out the rest of my CalTopo)

There's also the extensive trail journal of Buck 30 who did the whole thing in 2017.

Inside the guidebooks are maps which are made in the old NatGeo Topo! product. They're workable but I like having more of the surrounding area hence the CalTopo map which I exported to Gaia and my faithful Garmin Oregon GPS.

Timing

I did the 54 miles across 5 days. That included the train ride on the first day so that I didn't get hiking until noon and finishing at 8:30 am on day five so it easily could have been 4 days or maybe less.

The altitude of the first section is all below 3,400' so you're better off going in the cooler months. I went in early February and found sections rather warm during the heat of the day.

Food & Water

Once you leave town there is no on trail options to resupply before Ojai short of the fruit stands in Matilija Canyon so you're committed to carrying all your food.

Water is a little bit YMMV. I did the trail in February when there hadn't been any rain for a while. I brought 2 1 liter gatorade bottles and a 4 liter dram. The only time I filled the dram was in Matilija right before I reached the houses because I'd been warned I wouldn't be able to get to the water after that and that I might be dry until Ojai. In reality there was access to water in several places though my last campsite was dry.

The vast majority of section 1 falls inside of a burn area. As a result long sections are in the hot sun with no cover.

Cell Phone

I have AT&T and I had cell reception from the warf up to near the Cold Spring Saddle. After that I didn't have it again until the Lazy Dell Trail section at the end.

Day 1: Train Ride, Stearns Wharf, Montecito Hot Spring, Montecito Peak, Forbush Flat



I had a class to teach Tuesday night for the Wilderness Travel Course so I set out first thing Wednesday morning. After not nearly enough coffee my girlfriend dropped me off at the Irvine Train Station on her way to work.


I boarded at 7:45 am, tossed my pack in the oversized luggage rack on the second floor, and found a open seat. Since the train has plugs I was able to use my phone productively the entire way.


It was a long but relaxing 4 or so hours to reach Santa Barbara. The train was only busy on the way to LA and then thinned out and there were only a few people yammering on cell phones here and there.


I hopped off the train in Santa Barbara starving but I figured I'd go tag the start of the trail so I'd be on the clock when I stopped to eat.


Per the guidebook the southern terminus is the compass painted at the end of Stearns Wharf so I walked out, took a quick picture, then walked back.


There were a few places to eat on the pier but they looked expensive and seafood based so I decided to push on. Exiting the pier I made a right and started along a busy bike trail...


...and then continued along streets. At one point I tried to avoid a narrow section of road by climbing up and over a railroad bridge but that proved to be more trouble than it was worth and I stumbled through a small homeless encampment that was hiding back there.

I stopped and ate at the base of Hot Springs Road and then tried to briskly make the 2.5 mile climb up the paved road.


I was quite happy to reach the top and be done with pavement at least for a little while. At the top of Hot Springs Road there's a private gate and to the right of that is the somewhat unassuming start of a trail running along a flowing creek.



I reached the top of the canyon at mile 6.8 and explored the ruins of the old hot spring club and searched for pools further back in the canyon. From what I'd found online the pools were dry and sure enough the only thing I found was one cold stagnant puddle. I talked to a few locals who came by and they claimed everything was dry. Which was incorrect!


There were a few obviously active wells with steam hissing out the gaps and warm PVC pipes running back down the canyon. The signs loudly declaring they were the property of the Montecito Creek Water Co and that it was illegal to tamper with.

I thought the spring might be a bust at that point and I set off up the trail towards Montecito Creek only to run into the actual active pools.


There were about four pools of various temperature with water running out of two pipes sticking out from the rock. Since the upper ones were occupied I settled for briefly soaking my feet on the bottom pool before pushing on.

It was 3:45 pm when I left Montecito Hot Springs and I had another 2,000 ft of gain before I reached Cold Springs Saddle.



Despite the fact I was rapidly running out of daylight I took a brief excursion off the trail to bag Montecito Peak. I didn't find a register but it did offer a spectacular view of Santa Barbara below me.



I crossed Cold Spring Saddle around dark and descended the far side really hoping I'd soon find a campsite with water since my initial plan of reaching Mono Campground (which I now know is closed) wasn't looking feasible.

Fortunately I found a nice site right off the trail in Forbush Flat and after a little digging around in the bushes I located running water and was able to fill up. Since there was an established fire pit I tried to start a fire as I cooked dinner but the wood was too dense and damp to really catch.

Day 2: ForBush Flat, Little Caliente Hot Spring, Big Caliente Hot Spring, Lower Caliente Campground


Today promised to be the most action packed day of the trip with two hot springs to visit. It was also pretty much the end of the trail portion of this trip and I'd be on dirt and paved roads for the next few days.

I'd initially planned to take Forbush Canyon to Blue Canyon and go around using the roads but I decided I might as well take the shortcut the guide mentioned that ran next to the east side of the Gibraltar Reservoir.


I came across flowing water again and this interesting structure that reminded me of some of the pools we saw at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone last year.


At the bottom I crossed the San Ynez River which was flowing nicely and would be paralleling my route for the next few days making me feel a lot more secure when it came to my water supply.


The trail varied from decent and marked with pieces of ribbon...


...to bushwhack city though it's likely I just missed some part of the use trail.


At the far end I climbed up a hillside and joined a dirt jeep road. Despite how it looks on the map I never got a look at a proper reservoir just a forest of trees with water visibly in some of the gaps.


When I passed Mono Campground it was marked as closed due to environmental concerns. I could see some remains down below but I decided to respect the signage requesting people to stay out.


I followed the hot exposed road and eventually came to a signed day use only area.


Stupidly I followed the wrong trail from the parking area ended up coming upon the tubs from behind. The bottom pool was too cool for my taste so I spent time soaking in the top tub and cooking ramen for lunch. This was actually my favorite hot spring of the trip just because it was deep, clean, and already filled. Not to mention I had it to myself!



I backtracked down the road to where I'd come out of the reservoir and then continued along to the east climbing very gradually. Where there were still oaks to provide some cover it was actually quite pleasant.


But more often than not I was exposed with the sun beating down on me.

I'd seen a number of campgrounds along my route and when I reached P-Bar Flats Campground I got to see what they consisted of. Fire pits, picnic tables, bathrooms, and no easily accessible water supply evident without hiking over to the far side of the canyon where the Santa Ynez was flowing.


I continued on and make a turn at the Pendola Guard Station which didn't have anyone at home but certainly seemed like it was regularly inhabited. A friendly sign warned me that Big Caliente Hot Spring was closed but it didn't say I couldn't walk back there. I'd read online that a landslide had taken out some of the plumbing but I at least wanted to see the site.


And sure enough after following the road for a few miles past sections that had been wiped out by the steam I came to an empty cement tub. Nearby were bathrooms and changing area but the pool itself was empty and none of the faucets were operational. I looked around a bit and almost headed back down the road to find a camp before I decided to walk up the trail past the hot spring to where the spring was marked on the map.


Bingo! Just a short distance past where the road becomes a trail again I could see pipes running down the far side of the canyon.


When I crossed the river I found two fancy pools. The right hand pool was a bit stagnant looking though there was a trickle of water coming out of the pipe. I went in for a minute due to the principle of the thing but the water didn't look the most pleasant.


The other pool had painfully hot water shooting into it but the drain plug had been pulled and fairly recently based on the fact the walls were still wet. I figured there was no harm in filling it back up and used a piece of trashbag and a rock to block the drain again.


15 minutes later I was enjoying a nice hot soak right at the edge of my temperature tolerance. It felt rather glorious.

It took willpower to make myself get up and leave. Part of me was tempted to camp nearby and come back to the pool again tonight and maybe tomorrow morning but I wanted to be legal and dutifully trapsed the short distance back down the road to the Lower Caliente Campground.


There were two fire pits and enough room for at least 4 or 5 groups but again I had it all to myself. I went down into the river for downed wood and soon had a toasty fire going while I cooked dinner.

Day 3: Lower Caliente Campground to Upper Santa Ynez Campground



The next morning I decided I better get moving rather than running back up to the hot spring but it was a close decision.

Thus far I'd been spoiled with 3 hot springs in two days but from here on out the remaining springs along section 1 were reportedly closed or private.


Fire had reached this point but there were enough trees left that the campground was quite pleasant.


Back down past the Pendola Guard Station I rejoined the main road.


I had my thru hiker umbrella along and took advantage of it to get a break from the sun.


I found more locked gates where the trail passed the marked Juncal Campground. The campground didn't seem to exist anymore at least I never saw signs or sites. Continuing on I climbed towards Jameson Lake which was first noticed by the huge dam on the western side. The area under the dam and all around the lake is private though one could walk past the signs and fill up if the need was bad enough.


On the far side the trail continued to climb I ran into the first people I'd seen since the Montecito Hot Spring. Two mountain bikers with camping gear strapped on their bikes were headed for Big Caliente Hot Spring. I was able to give them beta about where to find the functional pools for which they were quite grateful.


When I reached the Upper Santa Ynez Campground and found water flowing immediatly off to the side I decided this would be home for the night. It really only had a single site with a park bench and a fire pit and no bathroom.

Day 4: Upper Santa Ynez Campground, Murrieta Canyon, Matilija Canyon, Cozy Dell Trail


The next morning I had a short climb to get over Murrieta Divide and then it was a long descent to Matilija Canyon. Once I was over the divide I started running into multiple groups of dayhikers and a few mountain bikers.

At the base the map shows the last two marked campgrounds until I reache Ojai. Unfortunatly they were a bit early for me so I was counting on being able to stelth somewhere along the way.


I initially mistook the nice grove of trees as the campground but it appears to be a private residence.


It was a nice place to eat an early lunch however.

From what I could see the Murietta Campsite involved stepping through some widely spaced barbed wire and looked to be a bit barren. Matilija Campsite would have been a diversion from the trail but seemed to be in a nicer area with more trees and running water.

I'd been warned by some locals that I might not find any more water until Ojai so I filled up with 5 liters right before reaching the trailhead parking.


The trailhead was busy and full of signs proclaiming the dangers of the area.


And then I was on roads winding through fancy houses displaying all sorts of no trespassing signs.


I received a few odd looks from homeowners as I went by and at one point I thought I was going to have an altercation with a barking dog someone had running loose. I also had several people driving by stop to ask if this was the way to the trailhead.


My last chance at a hot spring for this section was locked behind the fences of Ecotopia which seems to be some sort of a farming commune that also offers access to some hot springs right underneath the road.


Unfortunately I hadn't known when I'd arrived so I hadn't been able to register and pay ahead of time using their online system. So I settled for looking at the very full springs off in the distance.

(There's also a small footpath at the side of the road that lets you look straight down on the pools but I neglected to take better pictures from that vantage due to a number of unclothed individuals sunning themselves)


The Matilija Hot Springs located under the dam are closed


It looks like the Thomas Fire had been the last bullet to the head and now sadly the area is all closed off and set to be demolished. So I was batting three out of five as far as the hot springs mentioned in the guide.


Speaking of closed off it was a little ridiculous how much signage had been hung for miles to deny access to the river running right beside the road. There were a few places along the way where I could have just walked less than 10 ft and filled up water. Illegally. (Mmm, illegal water)


I also found this along the side of 33. No telling if it was the result of someone trespassing to the side of the river...


After what felt like a very long walk down hard pavement I came to the Cozy Dell Trailhead along 33.


Trail at last! The area had obviously burned but the freenery quotient was higher than anything I'd seen in the last few days.

I could have easily finished off the last of the trail and walked into Ojai but I didn't have a ride home until the following morning. Also a quick look at the hotel and AirBNB options ruled them out due to cost. So I started to get real concerned about finding a place to sleep for the night.


I hiked up to the first overlook not finding a single spot that looked like it would work for a campsite. I even went out on one of the ridges but there just wasn't anything suitable. I also didn't particularly want to set up on the overlook itself where I was sure people would be coming by.


I followed another foot path to the top of a hill and found a perfect spot. It had great views and plenty of exposed dirt. Not wanting to mess up the hard ground I didn't bother putting in tent stakes since after all it was a quiet night. Why bother...


Day 5: Cozy Dell Trail to Ojai


And as is prone to happen when you start making assumptions like that the weather turned late that night.

I woke up at some point to a damp sleeping bad and looked outside to see I was inside a fog bank. I quickly threw on the rainfly (again not staking it out) which turned out to be a good call both to keep out the damp fog and the rain which soon started.

Which was all fine if a little cramped and damp inside my improperly pitched tent until the wind picked up around dawn.


But hey, it got me moving a bit earlier than I'd otherwise have been inclined.


It was damp and cold so I just threw everything in my bag wet and figured I'd get breakfast when I met Jen down the hill.


Thanks to the rain and greenery the last section was the prettiest of the entire route. I'm really hoping section 2 is a little more like this.


The trail met up with the Foothill & Pratt trails and I turned south heading for town. The trail winds its way around mansions with private road access and past several vineyards before ending at a small dirt parking lot where Jen was waiting for me.


Similar to how I'd had a rough night she'd arrived home from a trip out of state to find that our landlord had accessed our condo to hang a sign in the window and had inadvertently locked the wrong lock. She arrived home from three days at a conference to find she didn't have the right key to get in and so was stuck outside. Not one to make a fus she just threw out her sleeping bag and pad in the garage and slept in there until morning.


So do I plan to continue? I'll likely head out and do section 2 in a few weeks which includes Sespe & Willett Hot Springs which I backpacked in 2017. Section 3 on the other hand I'll be doing as a part of the PCT and I don't feel the need to do it twice. Same issue with section 4 which half parallels the PCT.

I'd actually really like to get my hands on the full route map and see where else the trail goes once it's past the Sierra as I see a lot of potential for future trips it's just hard to justify the cost for the guidebook right at the moment when I know I'll just have to find a place to store it when we do our whole move into a van plan.

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3 comments

  1. You should be able to get a bit of information on here about trail conditions, water availability, camp details, and more in Los Padres National Forest. It'll tell you that Forbush is pretty reliable for water but not that the travertine pools (the first picture for day 2) over the hill are even more reliable. Losing the trail in the Mono Jungle (the trees above Gibraltar) is just par for the course. That's official trail, not use trail. That pool by the parking lot at Big Caliente was only ever warm, so you didn't miss much. There's some debate as to whether Matilija is really on private property or perhaps is within the auspice of right of way by virtue of the creek being navigable. (I've personally never bothered to push it. Little Caliente is much nicer. Well, less nice when it's 90F in the air.) That Matilija Dam has been on for destruction for decades. They've shortened it a few times, but that hasn't helped the fish get past it. There's a few more hot springs down under the water it's holding in, so there will be more hot springs once it really does go. Oh, and before the fire Murietta Camp included a jungle of poison oak to navigate, although the camp itself was fine. There shouldn't be any barbed wire involved. That's very curious. I have head of its rather barren state now, though hard to believe when it was so green and the creek so prone to flowing. It's not just the Thomas Fire, but also the floods of three weeks later. Matilija area got hit really hard.

    I'm surprised you didn't go and tag Monte Arido and Old Man Mountain on the Murietta divide. There's a nice spring practically at the top of the divide to support getting those HPS peaks. Nordhoff, Chief, Topatopa, and Hines in the section coming up.

    Definitely get information on current trail conditions before doing the second part. Red Reef shouldn't be too awful. Once along Sespe, it's great all the way to the Sespe Hot Springs, but not a lot of people go further east. That part along the Sespe to Lake Piru follows the Condor Trail (the premier through hiking trail in Los Padres National Forest) so people do keep track of its state. The trail in from Dough Flat should be good for that possible resupply although the trailhead is 3 miles further away in winter.

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    1. Thanks for all the information!

      I've been so focused on trying to find decent PCT prep hikes and the distance aspect that I didn't even think to check if I needed any HPS peaks in the area.

      I've done Sespe and Willet before and really enjoyed the hike. Any other thoughts about the rest of section 2? Timeframe is likely early April

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    2. Unfortunately, I took that banking turn left toward Sespe Hot Springs too, leaving that much smaller trail. No idea except from rumors about the rest. Ant is hard to get to now? There's going to be a new trailhead for the Potholes Trail? Poke around the "Hike Los Padres" site I linked. Click on the camps and trails on the map in the area you are interested in to get the reports people have submitted.

      At the other end, I'm one of few people who have done the last 5 miles or so on the east side from old 99. That's old road and was dwindling to faint trail at that point, but not gone. I always suspected the private property at the far end of the road/trail by Lake Piru might think it was only their road. Your links to people who hiked it probably know that bit best. No one goes there. That won't be on the Los Padres site because it's actually in Angeles.

      Look up the Condor Trail, which shares much of that part of the route, and try contacting Bryan Conant and maybe Alan Coles. Alan was the advocate for the Condor Trail before Bryan. I think you know him? If there's not enough information on "Hike Los Padres", one of them should know.

      Incidentally, the Condor Trail goes 400 miles without overlapping the PCT. It does overlap the California Coastal Trail, and plenty of that is walking a highway with no shoulder. It might be more in line with what you are looking for although the state of the trail is not equivalent to the PCT.

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