Sespe Wilderness - Willet Hot Springs


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Panorama of the Willett area from the spring trail
Panorama of the Willett area from the spring trail


Well, certain habits die hard. For a few years now, we keep going back to the Sespe, usually between November and April.

Our first-ever trip there was on a Super Bowl weekend, and it became a bit of a tradition. Back then, the logic went that it shouldn’t be very crowded as many people stay home to watch the game. It sort-of worked out. 2017 was no exception, we planned on going February 3-5. The weather prevented this, though, with 100% chance of heavy rain in the forecast, so we postponed the trip by a week.

Although it’s not a seasonal river, the big drought dried up the Sespe almost completely. In November 2015, we walked all the way to Sespe Hot Springs with completely dry shoes. 2016 got a bit better, and then as many might remember, 2017 had an unusually wet winter, with most dry places coming back to life. (Not to mention the super-bloom).

For the second weekend of February, the forecast was still not perfect, with 30-40% chance of “light rain”, but no strong winds and pleasant temperatures. We knew there might be a lot of water, but decided to go anyway and see how far we can get. Plan A, of course, was to go all the way to Sespe Hot Springs.

As a precaution, we put the Neos overshoes in the trunk and in the last second, Em packed a tiny umbrella, too.

Em negotiating the first crossing. This was not too bad yet.
Em negotiating the first crossing. This was not too bad yet.

Day 1 – L.A. to Piedra Blanca Trailhead and Willett Hot Springs

Like always, we got up early and drove to Piedra Blanca. As soon as we got there, it started drizzling a bit, bit when we left the parking lot, it stopped.

The second part of very first crossing already gave us trouble, it was not doable without getting water into our shoes. I ran back to the car, got the Neos shoes and we used those. This already cost of a lot of time. Then the second crossing (that usually small Piedra Blanca Creek coming in from the north) was the same, we had to put the Neos back on.

Then it started raining. It wasn’t heavy, but you couldn’t call that a drizzle anymore. Ponchos on, continue.

When we got to Fool’s Crossing (our name) at Bear Creek about an hour later, the rain stopped again, but the river was really swollen. We could see that this is would be an adventure with thigh-deep, swift water. Not impossible, but neither of us wanted to get completely wet, also knowing that we’d have to repeat this at the next crossing, less than two miles away.

On top of the hill west of Bear Creek
On top of the hill west of Bear Creek

We decided on a different adventure. Staying on the north bank, we bushwhacked our way downriver, scouting a route. Willet was the goal as we knew there’s no way we’ll make it to Sespe Hot Springs . It was late, and by the looks of Fool’s Crossing, the ones past Willet will be even worse, possibly too dangerous. We wanted to see whether we can somehow manage to get over to hump between the two crossings by staying on the north side, because then no further crossings would be between us and Willett.

It wasn’t easy going, but we slowly made some progress. To stay on the bank was impossible, so we climbed on really loose and steep soil for a few hundred feet and ended up on the top of the hill just downriver from Bear Camp. Great view and tons of interesting fossils. There was a moment where it looked like it’s too steep to proceed, but then we found an easy way down, and after a bit more bushwhacking, we were on the trail again, just past that crossing with all the reeds.

Approaching Willett in the rain
Approaching Willett in the rain

Of course, it started raining again, but we didn’t mind. However, the mud slowed us down considerably, so it was almost 4pm by the time we got to Willett. There was nobody there, at least not yet.

Our stuff drying in the barn
Our stuff drying in the barn

First, we set up in the barn (the crappy one between the hot spring trail and the main ranch). The roof was a bit leaky, but the vast majority of the floor was dry, and it was a million times better than being outside. We even started to pitch the tent on the concrete.

I don’t know why we haven’t thought about that sooner, but all of a sudden we decided to check out the cabin. For those who have never been there: on the west end of the ranch, there are three buildings, one being a cabin maintained by the people who frequent this area. The roof is patched, there are four metal-frame beds, even a few old camping mattresses, a wood stove that works really well, a table, and shelves with all sorts of knick-knacks. Just outside, a very nice camping table and a fireplace sit in front. Also, the gravity-fed spring has an outlet in a spigot on the right side.

A word of caution: any food item has to be stored very securely in this area, including inside and around the cabin as there are many mice around, all of them really hungry and really smart. They get into everything. More about this later.

Each time we went by the cabin, we could see that it’s occupied, and we never really had an inclination to stay there anyway as the weather was always nice.

This time, however, I ran down there from the barn, found that it was empty, left my pack, turned the “occupied cabin” sign, then went back for Em to get the rest of the gear.

It was still raining a bit, and there was one small leak on the roof of the cabin, but we took care of that and all-in-all it was incomparably better than the barn.

We set up, laid out our semi-wet clothes to dry, then gathered our stuff and went up to the hot spring to enjoy the water. In the meantime, another couple arrived and set up their tent close to the spring.

Also in the tub was a seasoned hiker who came in a week before and tried to go to Sespe Hot Springs, but had to turn around because of high water.

The rain kept going on and off, but we didn’t mind and sat in the hot water under the umbrella Em was so smart to bring along.

It kept drizzling when we retreated to the cabin, and it was cool, but we fired up the great little stove and had a great time. The night was really uncomfortable, though. Foolishly, we opted to sleep on one of the beds, together. There was no easy way to sleep apart as our sleeping bag is a two-person. We put all the mattresses we could find on one of the beds, then our mattresses when on top and we tried to sleep like that. It was miserable because the bed’s spring was really, really soft and we kept sliding into the middle. Also, we kept hearing a mouse running around and munching on something, but we didn’t leave anything out, so it took a while until we figured out what he was after: there were a few small tea candles in the cabin, and we briefly lit one, then left it on the counter. Believe it or not, the mouse was chewing on the wax. After a few hours of fitful sleep, we awoke to a beautiful and sunny morning.

Morning at the cabin
Morning at the cabin

Day 2 – Willet Hot Springs

Yours truly - truly enjoying the hot tub
Yours truly - truly enjoying the hot tub

All our wet stuff went onto the clothesline and we hung around a bit after breakfast. Then of course we went up to another bath in the hot tub, followed by lunch, then the hot tub again.

By this time, two more girls showed up and they said there are at least 50 tents at Bear Camp with around 80 people, all trying to get across the river, but most of them don’t want to risk it.

One more group of about 6 people made it, they went up to the tub and were just leaving when we got up there again after dinner.

That was it. 14 made it to Willett that weekend. Usually around 100 people are there, with anywhere from 20 to 40 milling around the tub at any given time, awaiting their turn. If it’s not obvious from the photos, the tub fits about 8 people comfortably.

We stayed until pretty late, having deep conversations with the people in hot tub about everything from the world’s drug problem to ramjet engines. The night was really nice, with a bit of wind chasing small clouds around the moonlit landscape.

This time, we decided to sleep on the floor. First, we cleared a big space between the beds and the table. There was some dry firewood under said table, full of spiders and other bugs, so we put a mattress up against that, then all the rest on the floor and slept like that. I can’t begin to explain how much better it was than the bed. Sure enough, our mouse returned again, and this time I was really sure we didn’t leave anything out, but he kept gnawing on something. It took a while to catch him in the act: he was eating wildflowers. During the day, I took a few forget-me-nots growing around the cabin and presented them to Em while we were having lunch at the picnic table. She put them in a small container with water and then took it inside, leaving it on the table. The mouse was eating the flowers. Funny part is, he could have eaten hundreds of them just outside the cabin. Well, I guess he reckoned humans are easier to deal with then owls and other creatures hunting him at night.

The view west from the cabin by moonlight
The view west from the cabin by moonlight

Day 3 – Willet Hot Springs to Piedra Blanca and back to L.A.

We stayed up late, well past midnight, so we slept in and only got up after 8am. There was no hurry as we wanted to let the water recede as much as possible. After a leisurely breakfast, we left Willett at 10am. We were pretty anxious about the two big crossing and decided to keep all possibilities open, including climbing the hill again.

Crossing the river
Crossing the river

When we got to the reed crossing, we saw that it was doable. Also, we didn’t care about getting our shoes wet, so in we went, carefully navigating the swift water. We both tried to stay on larger boulders and managed to get across by only going in a bit deeper than our knees.

Fool’s Crossing was a different deal. It narrower there, meaning it’s either really deep, really fast, or both. A couple in front of us found a marginally OK spot, but then went in waist-deep, and we wanted to avoid that so the gear in the backpacks stays dry.

Finally, I took a route that involved a few steps in really fast water that came up to my crotch. I remembered to turn into the current, keep the knees bent a bit and use the trekking poles for stability. After a few careful steps, I was over. Then I found stable footing and reached back, helping Em. She held on to my trekking pole and I pulled her over.

We sat down for a minute, drained the water from the shoes and the socks, then trudged on toward Piedra Blanca, arriving there around 2:30pm.


Of course, we were a bit bummed not to have made it all the way to Sespe Hot Springs, but this was really cool, too, with not that many people around, and staying at the cabin was something different.

The river is no joke, though. Please stay out of swift-moving water, even if it’s not deep. If you must cross, at least loosen all the straps on your backpack and undo the hip and chest buckles so you can jettison the pack if you fall in.

Also of note is that the horrendous storm of February 2017 came just a few days after we got home. This was that event that dumped another foot or so of rain and many feet of snow in the mountains, breaking the record. We could see the devastating effect of this in April, when we went back. It’s hard to imagine, but the valley of full of up to a dozen feet of rushing water.

A few more pictures in the full gallery.

The river just east of Willett.
The river just east of Willett. If you've been here before, you can see how high the water is.