Well, after having had such a nice time at Willett, we couldn’t wait to check out the other main destination there, namely Sespe Hot Springs.
As I mentioned before, Willet is a tub, fed by a small spring, 10 miles from the trailhead. Sespe Hot Springs is an actual creek, with no permanent human-built tubs or pools, around 16 miles from the trailhead.
Having done the Trans Catalina Trail just a month prior, we felt in relatively good shape, so we decided to hike in in one day, stay two nights, then hike out in one day again. I know, for many serious hikers, 16-mile days are nothing, but for us, especially back then, it was a pretty big deal. The trail not being at altitude and the terrain being “smooth” made the decision easier.
We had a late start – only left the trailhead around 11am and pushed through to Willett for a break, not even taking many pictures on the way as we were there only two months before. After lunch at the old ranch, we continued on, and I had my closest encounter with a rattlesnake (so far – and I’d love to keep it that way).
So here’s the situation: if you want to hike all the way to Sespe Hot Springs, you have two choices when you get to Ten Sycamore Flats (just before Willett – see here about this).
One, you can either cross the river and bypass Willett, staying on the south bank and following the main trail. In subsequent trips, this is what we did a few times.
Two: stay on the left of the river and go to Willet. This offers the opportunity for a break under the nice big cottonwood trees with the picnic table. Also, there’s the gravity-fed spring that has great-tasting water (however, we’ve found it dry about half the time we’ve been there). If you’re on this side, you can cross the river again to join the main trail, but it’s not really worth it very much. The crossing there is a mess, with no clear route amongst very thick reed.
So the alternative is this old, very faint trail leading east from the ranch, first going in the thick bushes next to the river, then climbing up a small hill, finally descending into a bushy meadow (very beautiful place) and joining the main trail about a mile from the ranch, near a very cool stock camp called Hartman, though you night not see it coming from this direction.
We decided to try this trail. We were just past the ranch, walking very cautiously on the thick overgrown trail. I was in front, and I did keep a keen eye and ear out for rattlers, but of course they turn up in that split second you’re not looking. A big quail family made some ruckus in the bushes, and while still walking, I looked at them, even making some stupid joke to Em about eating quail for dinner. I swear I didn’t take my eyes off the trail for more than a second. All of a sudden I hear rustling right in front of me, and even before I have a chance to fully stop, I look down, and there this huge black rattler less than a foot ahead of me in the grass, coiling up, starting to rattle loudly. When I finally stopped, my toes were maybe 6-7 inches from his coiled body and his head was about 10 inches from my shinbone. I could clearly see his blue tongue sniffing the air (yes, rattlesnakes sniff with their tongues).
I read somewhere that it’s better to run into a big old rattlesnake rather than a young one. It takes them a lot of energy to produce their venom, and older ones don’t attack that easily. Younger, not-so-wise ones are supposedly quicker to feel provoked. Also, if they do strike (and of course I never want to experience this) older ones sometimes don’t even inject any venom as they don’t see a need for it. Young ones are more likely to give you everything they got. Thank goodness, this snake was huge and old.
So anyway, I stopped, very calmly took a step back, then placed my hiking pole in front of my leg. I was careful not to seem provoking to the snake. He just kept rattling and rattling. After a few more backwards steps, I started breathing again and contemplated the fact that he was in spot impossible to photograph.
We gave him a wide berth, but stayed extra vigilant for family members. This “legend” is true, or at least I’ve seen it several times: more often than not, rattlers travel in pairs. If you see one, it’s likely there’s another just a few feet away.
This time, we didn’t encounter the companion. After going around the still-rattling snake, we continued on, eventually climbing that little hill, then descending and finding the main trail.
The stretch between Willet and Sespe Hot Springs is simply amazing. It became one of our favorite places. It’s wild, very wild, in the best possible way. I can’t really find words to explain the beauty of the place, it’s not anything like an alpine or sub-alpine valley, but it has it unique colors, sounds, and smells (good smells).
There are four more river crossings to Sespe (six if you bypass Willett), but none of them came even close to having enough water to warrant taking our shoes off.
About 14 miles from Piedra Blanca, the trail crests a hill and there’s an old rusty sign on top, saying there are some more trails going forward (one goes all the way to – another entrance into this wilderness). The trail to Sespe Hot Springs goes to the left. From this high point, it descends a bit, then goes into the drainage of the creek (officailly this stream is called Poplar Creek). It’s almost a full mile from here to Coldwater Junction, then another quarter mile to Palmtree Penthouse, and yet another half-ish mile to the last spring. More about his soon.
It was almost 6:30pm and getting dark by the time we got to the point where the canyon splits in two and the main trail starts climbing towards Mutau Flat. This place is sometimes called Coldwater Junction and fittingly, there’s a little creek with cold water on the left (west) side – great drinking water.
A pretty big camping area is in this location, just off the trail. Poplar Creek is still pretty warm at this point, perfect for some, maybe not hot enough for others.
From here, the hot springs trail follows the creek a bit upwards into the next part of the canyon where the vegetation thins out, save for some shrubs, lots of cacti, and two clusters of native California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera). The second cluster is what many call Palmtree Penthouse. There’s a small wind shade made of stacked stones and perfect spots for two small tents. Also, as we later found out, there’s floor heating as one of the hot springs runs right below the surface, feeding the palm trees, warming the ground. It feels like camping on dirt that has been warmed by the sun all day – except it never cools off.
The spot was empty, and we considered setting up camp here. There’s a nice bathing spot in the creek nearby, but after testing the water, we found it way too hot for our taste, so we went back to the junction and settled down. The water right next to our place was just perfect for us – we both have relatively low blood pressure and can’t handle really hot water for longer times.
We set up camp and cooked dinner. By the time we were done, it was dark and we couldn’t wait to get into the water. A small dam has been constructed in the creek and by every indication, somebody has been using that spot only a few days prior. The creek bed is mostly made up of small gravel, so moving it around is not very tiresome. We shored up the dam and dug for a bit, making a nice little tub where we could lie down with our back against a perfectly placed, perfect-sized rock right on the edge.
The water was simply awesome. We sat there for way over an hour before retreating to our tent.
We slept in, with the morning sun finding us in the chilly morning. The steam rising from the creek looked pretty cool and unusual.
After a very late breakfast and some lingering around, we walked upstream to explore the canyon. There are several more spots for bathing, but the water gets hotter and hotter. The good news is, this way everybody can choose what’s right for them.
Wandering by the stream, we found a bighorn lamb, dead, looking like the unfinished meal of a mountain lion. Read more about them in this trip report when we met them up close.
At least a dozen little hot springs come together to form the creek, some emerging from a few feet high up on the rock, some from the ground. Further up the canyon, there’s a bigger arm coming from the left (when looking upstream), and it already cold. I heard descriptions of this creek flowing so well that people could build bathing pools at the junctions, mixing cold and hot water at their leisure. However, this time there wasn’t nearly enough cold water for this.
Past the last hot spring we found a very nice campsite under a cottonwood tree, but this would be way to far from both cold and hot water for us. This part of the canyon is very beautiful, by the way. The vegetation gets thicker again and the creak meanders through some really cool rock formations. Great lunch spot.
This is where Em spotted our first pair of bighorn sheep, a ewe and a lamb. They came down the hill, stopped to look at us, then climbed up the other side, with the mom alternating between waiting for the little one and prodding her to keep going on the steep slope. They quickly got out of sight, so we could only take a few really bad pictures. We got a gallery from another trip with more and way better pictures of the Sespe bighorn sheep.
While walking back to camp, we met two people who just hiked in, set up camp around the palm trees and were getting ready to enjoy the water. We ate a snack, took a quick nap in the tent, then went for a nice walk up the hill on the Mutau Flat trail. It’s really steep, climbing almost 2,400’ in about five miles before dropping a bit to Mutau.
Of course, we didn’t go that far, only a mile or two so we can get a nice view of the canyon from above. Despite keeping an eye out for more sheep, we didn’t see any. However, we found the remnants of an old Triumph motorcycle, and Em had a great time riding it. By this time is was past 7pm, getting dark and chilly.
As soon as we got back to the tent, we couldn’t wait to finish dinner and jump in the creek again. This time, we spent over two hours soaking in the great water. It was almost midnight when we finally got to bed.
Despite setting the alarm to 8am, it took us forever to get ourselves together and say goodbye to the place. We left after 10am. Trying to make good time, and after taking a nice lunch- and then a snack break, we got back to the car a bit past 5pm. It looked like it would rain at any moment, but in the end, it didn’t.
We got completely hooked. This place is one of our favorites. The scenery is magical in its own right, but let’s be honest, the main reason for going there is the hot water and if you’re into wildlife watching, the sheep.
Sespe Hot Springs is a quite different experience than Willet, both in terms of hiking distance and bathing. Be prepared for way more river crossings (though most times this is not an issue), a less used trail past Willett, and to do some rock stacking/digging at your soaking spot.
Once at Sespe, try filtering drinking water from the cold creek. There’s nothing wrong with drinking from the main creek, just let it cool off and filter it, too. Slightly sulfuric water is actually good for your hair, nails and joints. Those susceptible to acid reflux or heartburn should carry antacid as the more acidic water can trigger those symptoms.
Don't forget to take a look at the full gallery.