I work on a tv show and we unexpectedly had a hiatus come up. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to get in a quick overnight backpacking trip. It was getting late into the season so I wasn’t looking at nearby mountains like San Gorgonio Wilderness or Sequoia National Park. Those areas might have bad weather that would cause me to cancel. Last November I had a similar hiatus and went on a 3 day trip with a couple of friends in the Big Sur area. Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres where we ended up hiking and camping at Sykes where there is a great hot springs. I thought why not something similar but closer to home. I started doing some research and up popped Willet Hot Springs in the Sespe Wilderness. That’s only about 2 hours from Los Angeles. Perfect! Time to start planning.
I sent out some emails to my backpacking friends. Of course most people couldn’t make it on such short notice. I was planning on going solo if necessary but 2 new friends said they could do it. A couple of months earlier my friend Joe and I met Doris and Lauren while summiting San Gorgonio Mtn and staying at High Camp. We exchanged emails to keep each other informed of future trips. Doris and Lauren are a couple of adventurous women. They are always up for an adventure and don’t shy away from big miles or a challenge. A perfect combo for trail partners. About a week before the trip Lauren had to cancel because of work obligations but then I checked in with my friend Robb. Robb and I had exchanged texts earlier and I thought he wasn’t available but I got the weekends mixed up. Now we’re a party of 3 again!
Robb and Doris drove up from San Diego the night before because we were planning on leaving around 6:30 am. After packing up my truck, getting breakfast, and gas we arrived at the trail head parking lot at Lions Campground by 9:45 am. We didn’t waste too much time and were on the trail within 30 mins. Make sure you have an Adventure Pass displayed in your car as rangers will check while you’re gone. You can get these at your local REI along with some other places. The annual pass is well worth the $30.
From the parking you can see the Sespe Creek. This late in the season (November) the creek bed was dry as we had expected. If you are looking at the restrooms, the trail will be to the left. Hike a very short distance down the trail to the creek bed and cross. As you cross, you should be able to see where the trail continues on the other side. On the other side you will see a sign. Piedra Blanca Trail to the left and Sespe River Trail to the right. Take the Sespe River Trail to your right. The trail is fairly flat with only a total elevation gain of around 1700′ over 10 miles according to Robb’s gps. The elevation ranges from about 2000-3000 ft and is generally Southern California chaparral type landscape. You will see many campsites along the way. Most of them are unmarked. I knew the water level would be low so I had called the Ojai Ranger Station ahead of time to check the water situation. The ranger I spoke to said there was water along the trail. The creek appeared to be completely dry and I was a little concerned.
Around 2.25 miles down the trail there was a large campsite and we went down to the creek here to see if there was any water as most campsites are near water sources. When I got down to the creek I couldn’t find any water. Now I was getting more concerned and was already starting to think that if we don’t see water along the way that this trip will soon become a day hike. The weather was scattered clouds with cooler temperatures in the upper 60’s to low 70’s F so it was still a little early to worry too much. As we hiked around the bend past the campsite and looked back, Robb noticed a huge pool of water on the East side of the camp. It was hidden by all of the vegetation and wasn’t flowing down the creek bed. We later learned that these pools were fed from creeks coming down from the low mountains or springs but during this part of the year they did not usually flow enough to continue downstream. Even though we weren’t going back for water it was still a good sign. Another 2 miles or so I started to think that it would be nice to stop for lunch and filter some water. As we stood along the trail and took in the views (i.e. resting), Doris said she thought she heard water. I don’t know how she heard it but when I listened too I heard the sweet sound of gurgling water. Women are always better listeners. We hiked down towards the sound and saw the water. I walked through the thick vegetation to find a decent spot to filter water but only found some precarious spots in which to squat down. The potential for falling in was high. Luckily Robb found a much better spot. We took off our packs, filtered and ate our lunch.
About another mile down the trail you reach Bear Creek campground which is roughly the halfway point. The trail passes right through the camp so there is no way to miss it. There is a large, year round pool of water. If we would’ve known this ahead of time, we definitely would’ve stopped here for lunch instead. Plenty of camping spots and camper made rock fire rings. The pool of water is great for swimming from what I’ve read and can see. It looks pretty deep in some spots. As you pass through the camp the trail will veer right to cross the creek to the South side. Be on the lookout as it can be easy to miss especially on the way back. When you get to the other side, continue heading left. Note: On the way home look out for cairns (stacked rocks) to mark where to cross. It’s easy to miss.
You will start to encounter some elevation gain and descents as you get closer to Willet. Towards the end you will descend towards Thatcher campground and will cross the creek again to your right. It started to rain shortly before we got here so I had been walking with my head down to keep the water out of my face. Since I was leading, Doris and Robb followed me as I began to get lost. We missed the trail marker and continued into the camping area which has many false trails which just connected the different camping spots. As we got to the end of the camping area, it didn’t seem clear where to go so I stopped and pulled out my iPhone to check my Gaia gps app. While trip planning I had saved our planned route in Gaia. According to the gps, we passed the trail marker that marked where to cross. By this time it was about 4 pm so we had about 1-1 1/2 hours left of daylight. We backtracked and easily found the trail marker. Generally, the person who planned the trip is the de facto guide and since I planned the trip I felt bad for getting us off track.
As you get back on the trail on the other side of the creek, you will continue to your left. We could now see the trail up to the hot springs on the other side of the creek (another crossing to come) leading up a tight canyon. It continued to rain but now we were back in the game and really paying attention because we knew we had to cross the creek one last time. We hiked another few hundred yards and I was keeping an eye on the gps so we wouldn’t miss this last crossing. As I checked the gps, it looked like we again passed the crossing. Argh!!! We looked at the paper map but could only estimate a rough position so we relied on the gps and backtracked again to find the crossing. We couldn’t find it! To make matters worse, Robb and Doris were starting to get cold. Since Doris didn’t have dry bags for her sleeping bag and clothes or a pack cover, it was really important to keep her stuff dry so she would at least be warm in camp. Thankfully Robb had a back up trash bag to use as a pack liner. Doris and Robb took her stuff out of her pack, put them into the trash bag and back into her pack to keep everything dry. While they were doing this, I told them I’d walk ahead and look for the crossing. Maybe we hadn’t gone far enough. Sure enough, about 30 yards passed the farthest point we went earlier was the crossing marked by some cairns. We were almost there! Gps is a great tool but it’s not accurate at locating your exact position 100% of the time. We hiked down to the crossing and there was water. [Note: If you do not cross here to Willet Hot Springs but instead continue down the trail you will reach Sespe Hot Springs in 5 miles.] I did some light bushwhacking and was able to find a way to cross without walking through the water. When you make it over this last crossing you will see an abandoned house a little to your left. Head this way while keeping the house on your right and you should see the trail. There are some good camp spots in this area and would recommend them if it’s crowded because there is only 1 spot up by the spring which can only handle about 2-4 tents.
As we started up this last section of trail it stopped raining and we saw an incredible rainbow. Robb noticed it was glowing where the rainbow met the ground to our right. He deemed it a “pot of gold.” I’m not religious but this felt like a sign of some sort. From here it’s about .25 mile up a steep section of trail. At the top you will see one campsite which I would only recommend if nobody is there. Even if I was the first one there, I would not want to camp here if others were around because they would have to walk right through your site to get to the hot springs. Luckily, nobody else was there! It was 5pm by now but we were so excited that we made it and wanted to see the hot springs tub so we set our packs down and headed up about 100 ft through thick trees. As we got closer to the tub we could smell the strong scent of sulfur. We noticed when we got to the tub that the water was green and cloudy. I’m not sure why but that wasn’t going to stop me. I put my hand in the water. Damn! It was really warm. I’m guessing it was about 108 degrees. Since we only had about 30 mins of daylight left we decided to set up camp and hit the hot springs in the morning before heading home.
The campsite was just big enough to fit our 3 shelters. We each had a 2 person shelter. After setting up our tents, we each made dinner and talked. There is a rock fire ring but no fires are allowed right now because of the drought. If there is any question, call the ranger station or check their website. When campfires are allowed you will need a fire permit. Soon it began to rain again lightly so we each headed into our tents but continued to talk and exchange photos through Air Drop. Doris is the tech savvy one so she guided us through the process. It continued to rain through most of the night but we all stayed warm and dry. We woke up and it was a bit chilly but we were excited to get in the tub. Robb’s thermometer said it reached a low of 42 degrees Fahrenheit so I’m guessing it was in the upper 40’s by the time we woke. We headed up to the tub again and this time Robb, who was in front, said the water was clear. I thought he was joking but he wasn’t. We jumped in or more like we carefully climbed in. It was warm and felt great. The tub’s floor is slimy as I had read. There are some scrub brushes so you can drain the tub, scrub it and refill it. To open the drain valve you need a large wrench which we didn’t have. Plus, we didn’t have time to do all of that. The tub is pretty large. It can easily fit 8 people and 10-12 people if you’re good friends. After an hour of soaking in the tub, I was getting hot. Good timing because we still needed to hike back to my truck and drive home. There are 2 pipes that fill the tub. One is hot water (not scalding though) and the other is tepid. These flexible, pvc pipes head up the hill towards the source of the hot springs. Clearly, people do some regular maintenance to the infrastructure. Thank you!
As we were packing up I heard the sound of falling rocks coming from the canyon walls above us. From pre-trip planning I knew that it was big horn sheep. I looked up but missed them. I was disappointed, because I really wanted catch a glimpse of them. Oh well, time to head home. It was great hiking weather most of the day. Mid 60’s to low 70’s and no rain. Having just hiked the same route the day before, we made good time. We reached Bear Creek campground and ate lunch. While we ate, another backpacker approached. It was the first hiker we had seen in the past 24 hours. He was going to camp with his dog at Bear Creek so we chatted while he began to get situated. His name is Casey and it turns out he lives a few miles from me which in L.A. is like living on the same street. We only saw one other hiker who was just out for the day. We reached my truck around 3:30 pm which was about 5 1/2 hours of hiking back. 2 hours faster than the previous day!
I will definitely go back. Being from Southern California I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by the landscape but it was impressive. There was much to see. Different hues of orange and yellow of Autumn, wide open views, strange rock formations, pines nearby on the surrounding mountains… Before the trip I was really focused on the destination, but it turned out the journey was just as good. I look forward to going back in the Spring to see all the wild flowers. I guess I better hope for another unexpected hiatus.
Sespe River Trailhead to Willet Hot Springs:
- Distance: approximately 10 miles one way.
- Elevation gain: 1700′
- Many creek crossings. Check water level before hiking. Spring will typically have the highest water levels.
- Bear Creek Camp and and the bottom where Willet drains into Sespe Creek are reliable year round water sources.
Directions to the trailhead:
- 101 North (from L.A. area) towards Ventura
- Hwy 33 East towards Ojai
- Hwy 150/Baldwin Rd LEFT (this will be shortly before Ojai)
- La Luna Ave RIGHT
- Hwy 33 LEFT
- Rose Valley Rd RIGHT
- Stay on this road for a few miles and it will end at Lion Campground. Make sure not to take the road marked Middle Lion Campground. Stay on Rose Valley, as Middle Lion is a different campground.
Rose Valley Rd (Forest Route 5N24), Los Padres National Forest, Maricopa, CA 93252
34.5765, -119.050698 (34 deg 34′ 35.40″N, 119 deg 03′ 02.51″ W)
Ojai Ranger Station:
1190 E. Ojai Ave, Ojai, CA 93023
Print, fill out and keep in your pack.
Not required, just the fire permit and Adventure Pass for Parking.