The European region we come from is teeming with hot springs. However, they are all tamed and civilized, as they have been since Roman and then Turkish times. I don't know of one hot spring in my country that's not within a spa or resort (of course, I'm sure there are many). Somehow the fact that there are any kinds of hot springs in Southern California completely eluded me until a few years ago. Then I ran into several articles about them around 2011, one describing the hot springs in the Sespe Wilderness.
The whole place seemed very enticing: the Sespe is Southern California's last unregulated river, it's not damed or ditched anywhere, it flows uninhibited from spring to ocean. Also, in this Mediterranean climate of ours, it's a very nice place in winter.
I showed Em, we looked at some pictures and decided we have to go there. Then we both forgot about it.
Come January 2013, we were sitting around the beach on Malibu (sitting on a beach in winter, in shorts, enjoying the sunshine, what a big deal that is!) discussing future trips. All of a sudden, Em remembered "some hot springs we talked about years ago". We didn't need much more, in three weeks, off we were.
The Sespe Wilderness belongs to the Los Padres National Forest, and there's no permit system in place. If you obey the rules, you can hike and camp at your hearth's content. In the likely case you want to make any kind of fire, you need to download, sign and keep the California campfire permit with you. If you hike a lot, it's a good idea to have a fresh one each year with you all the time. We keep one in our first aid baggie.
The Sespe has two major hot spring locations: Willett Hot Springs (with a tub) and Sespe Hot Springs (a wild-flowing hot creek). For this trip, we decided to go to Willett, and chose Super Bowl Sunday. Neither of us is into football, and after having read that the place gets really crowded on a weekends, this seemed like a good idea. Em got a day off for Monday, I arranged my schedule accordingly, and we left Sunday morning.
There are alternative ways to get to this place, but the most straight-forward solution is to start at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. The drive up there is already very nice in itself. The trailhead is named after the huge white granite outcroppings nearby, and several routes start from here, going in almost every direction. We needed the one behind the restroom, going east, down in the Sespe Valley.
The first part is a bit "touristy", you can see people on walks and day hikes, and in the summer, there are (supposedly) big crowds around the tree-lined riverbank enjoying the water. There are two crossings during the fist half mile, and during my research I've seen videos of people having to wade trough almost knee-deep water, but this year, the water was so low, some minor boulder-hopping took care of it.
At around mile 4.5, there's "Bear Creek" camp, the first trail camp, a very scenic place with amazing swimming/bathing opportunities in the river, but as this is the closest, it's the most overused and crowded one. This time, two parties were there.
We met some people coming from Willett, and asked them about the conditions. Their reports were encouraging, they said most people are leaving (being a Sunday) and some guys who clean the tub every year did just that this very weekend. Great!
Em also mentioned that everybody coming from that direction smelled funny. Well, we soon got our taste of that.
The Sespe Valley is quite something. You can't compare it to a canyon or drainage in the high Sierras, but it has it's own unique beauty. It's a pretty dry place, with sage and chaparral dominating the hillsides, but the riparian strip in the middle is lush and very diverse. There's pine, oak, and all sorts of other trees. The trail is generally very easy, though exposed (I would not go there in the summer), and not hard to follow, except for a few spots.
We met two gentlemen who said they wanted to hike to Willett and back, but turned around after the trail got too faint and too bushy. That sounded a bit suspicious, as nobody mentioned this before. About a mile and a half or so past Bear Creek, and trail crosses the river again, and it's easy to miss, or at least it was this time. There's a thick "fence" of reeds, and the fresh footprints (of the the guys who got lost) lead the other way, continuing on the south side of the riverbank. I was almost sure we're in the wrong place, but for the moment, we settled down to eat lunch, and Em, with her keen senses, saw somebody on the other side, coming down the hill. I consulted the GPS map, and behold, the trail was right there where it should have been, on the other side.
After lunch, we backtracked the few dozen yards, found the crossing (again, not much water, hopping did it), and continued up the hill. From Piedra Blanca, the trail loses about 500' net to Willett, but there are at least three or four climbs where the trail leaves the riverbank and proceeds on the hillside. It's a bit of a grind, but not bad at all.
We arrived at Willett around 4pm. Some people hiking out gave us a very good advice: just before you get there, the trail is crossing the river again at a place called "Ten Sycamore Flats". There's a "Trail ->" sign pointing to the crossing. Don't go there, because then you have to cross the river yet again after another quarter mile. Instead, keep to the left, and walk in the watershed (there's no water), keeping on the left side of the river, into the thick forest, following one of the several trails leading through it. Soon, you'll pop out on the other side and voilá, you arrived at Willett. We did just that and it paid off big time.
There are remnants of an old ranch down there, and several campsites strewn around, including some in the forest, and one spot even in an old abandoned cabin. A few people camped here and there, but it didn't look very crowded. We were just about to pump water from the river (doesn't taste very good, it's pretty stale), when a young guy informed us that there's a very nice gravity-fed spring at the ranch. We didn't need too much encouraging and filled up our water there.
The hot spring is not by the waterfront, it's up on a hillside, about a quarter mile from the ranch. This same guy also told us that there' only one campsite up there and no potable water. We decided to go up there and check it out. The trail is pretty steep, but short, and passes by the aforementioned campsite. It's small indeed, room for one or two tents.
We left out packs and headed up to the small grove where the trail dead-ends on the side of the hill. The thermal water flows from high in the rocks and it's channeled into the big tub that must have been installed many years ago. The smell of sulfur is pretty strong, and usually I'm relatively sensitive to strong smells, but I got used to it in no time.
After checking out the tub quickly, we returned to our packs and unpacked everything we could. We decided to camp here, but as there was no water, we headed down to the ranch again with the almost empty packs and filled up everything we had. Then back up the hill again, set camp and cook dinner. A small fox showed up, looked longingly at our food, but as he got nothing, scurried away.
By the time we finished eating, it was dark, and we got our bathing gear (well, towels) and walked up to the tub. It was a perfect evening. Clear and windless, not very cold. We got into the pool around 7pm and stayed until almost 11pm. It was lovely. The water is perfect, and you can adjust your temperature by moving closer or farther from the inlet. If I felt too hot, I just stood up and cooled off a bit. Nobody else showed up, so we had total solitude and were sitting around naked. Just as those people said, the tub was clean, with only a few dried leaves floating about. Even years later, I still consider this one of the most relaxing experiences I ever had.
Finally, we had enough, got out, dried ourselves as best as we could and went to sleep.
The sulfur water does wonders to the skin and muscles, there was not even a hint of the usual joint and muscle sores we have after hiking. We slept like babies and only woke up after 9am. We contemplated taking another bath before leaving, but decided against it. We just went up there to take some decent daylight pictures, then packed up and left.
The hike back was very nice and uneventful. Taking our time and breaking for a long lunch at Bear Creek, it was past 3pm by the time we got back to the car. Now we understood why everybody smelled the way they did: the sulfur clings to your skin, then permeates your clothes and it's very hard to get rid of it. Even after two washes, our hiking shirts had a faint smell, despite that they never even got to touch the sulfur water, just our dry skin. It's not as bad as it sounds, though.
This place has become of favorite of ours, especially Sespe Hot Springs. If you're prepared, it can be a fantastic winter/spring backcountry outing. Crowds can be a problem, heat can be a problem (even in non-summer months), and though we got lucky each time, rain can be a real serious problem.
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