Magic in the mountains: A visit to Sespe Hot Springs

It’s not about the destination, but the journey. I think that’s how the old saying goes. It may be a cliche, but I’ve found it tends to hold true through many applications in life, especially hiking.

However, for Sespe Hot Springs, it is all about the destination because the journey is a bit of a pain in the ass.

Madison Snively hiking in Los Padres National Forest.
En route to Sespe Hot Springs.

Magic in the mountains

Sespe Hot Springs is a gem of a destination nestled in a remote canyon in the heart of southern California’s Transverse Ranges.

Scalding water flows from a spring in said canyon, forming pools as it tumbles downhill and cools to a goldilocks temperature for humans. It’s a paradise of sorts, although there is a price to pay for entry.

There’s simply no easy way to get to Sespe. There are three trails that can be accessed to arrive at the spring and each is just as difficult as the last. The most used and ‘easiest’ route is a 15+ mile beeline straight into the mountains, following the gentle curves of Sespe Creek.

The route includes climbs over ridges that protrude into the river valley, several crossings of the creek, and stretches of shade-less trail where the sun can be punishing even on the most unsuspecting of days.

I’m sure many decades ago Sespe was a well-kept secret, but that’s not the case anymore. You can find pretty straight forward directions on how to get there online, including on the website of the national forest. Nevertheless, the wide, natural barrier created by Mother Nature keeps the trails relatively empty for those willing to take on the trek.

The trail sign with destinations in Los Padres National Forest.

The long haul to Sespe

Anticipating a very long day on the trail, we got an early start at the crack of dawn. The plan was simple: Hike straight into Sespe, spend the night, and hike straight back out.

Once on the move we were greeted by a crisp sunrise with temperatures hovering a tad above freezing. Thin wool gloves were no match for the penetrating chills numbing our fingers.

The sun slowly pushed over the highest summits, still covered in stubborn patches of snow. The rays of sunlight were more than welcomed to bring feeling back to our extremities.

The trail starts out fairly flat, following the banks of Sespe Creek, jumping across the gentle current when the topography demands.

This portion of Los Padres National Forest is a paradise for geology geeks. The well-exposed sedimentary layers of sandstones and shales are thrust skyward by the infamous San Andreas fault. The layers tilt at near-impossible perpendicular angles, a shocking fate for rocks that were once tranquilly minding their own business on the ocean floor.

Sespe Hot Springs sits less than 20 miles from the fault and a unique ‘bend’ in the convergence of the Pacific and North American Plates. The ‘bend’ causes friction in the plates that formed California’s only true east/west oriented mountain range, which stands out in a land where the ranges generally are oriented north/south. (Was I talking about myself when mentioning ‘geology geeks’?)

Sandstone sedimentary layers in Los Padres National Forest.
A great example of the vertically thrust sediment layers in the area.
Sespe creek winds through Los Padres National Forest.
More sediment layers exposed by the flow of Sespe Creek.

The beginning half of the trail is definitely easier, as the second half is a series of climbs up and over the aforementioned hills and ridges.

Something about the direct sunlight, repeated spurts of climbing, and overnight backpack loads make the hiking so much tiring than it appears on paper. Additionally, the second half of the trail features the more tricky crossings of the creek, which, if you are trying to not get wet, can require a bit of time, energy, and focus.

The creek crossings weren’t too difficult this spring due to the pretty dry La Niña winter in California. That said, debris hanging on tree limbs well above the sandy banks hints at the torrential power that can flow through this canyon during a significant rain.

By the end of the day our speedy pace of the morning had slowed down to a labored trudge.

Branching off up into a tributary canyon of Sespe Creek, we were running on fumes. Each step forward was done with purpose, anticipating the moment we could jump in a hot spring, even if the afternoon temperatures were still on the warm side.

We could hear the water flowing and when we came across the stream we stuck in our hands. It wasn’t the chilly water we had been crossing all day in Sespe Creek. It was hot to the touch — an extra boost of motivation to trudge further on up the canyon.

Soaking in Sespe hot Springs.
Jumping straight into a hot spring. These pools were about hot tub temperature.

A soak in the springs

The springs were just as idyllic as I remembered during my first trip out there nearly six years ago. The warm water was the perfect remedy for sore, overworked muscles.

This particular weekend had a few more campers than the last time I was out there, but there really are plenty of pools to go around.

An afternoon dip was followed by dinner and then another evening dip. And to make the most of our long hike in, we got up again at 5am for one final hot spring dip before setting out to retrace our footsteps to the trailhead.

It would be nice if these hot springs were more reasonably reachable for frequent visits, but then again, the remoteness and solitude is a big part of what makes them special. It’s probably best that it remains that way. Hot springs that venture too close to civilization often turn into day spas or beer pong venues.

I’d say I prefer the way it is right now.

Put in the hard miles and you are more than deserving of the reward that awaits.

6 thoughts

  1. Nice article! I grew up in Ojai so we used to go here a lot. You used to be able to drive there in a high clearance vehicle and it was a party location with lots of trash and way too many people. It is much better now being hard to reach and in a wilderness area. Time has erased a lot of the damage stupid people did to the site. You can barely tell there used to be a road.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Rick. Wow I didn’t know it used to be like that. I assume that you would drive in from the north? Glad to see that it has gotten cleaned up now. I did notice however that there was no dead wood or anything that resembled firewood around because it had all been collected to extinction for fires… dead wood is a crucial part of an environment as much as the living wood!

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      1. Rick is right, and the drivable portion was actually the trail you took from Rose Valley that was the drive able one. I think the navy SeaBees used to maintain it or something like that. The Sespe is awesome and there are some truly fascinating stories about that area, some more credible than the others. Outdoor magazine did a great write up on the tragic story of the boy scouts and their would be rescuers who perished in the ’69 flood, tragic. On a lighter note, great write up, well done. Even with additional exposure I have faith the approach will keep the rif-raf away!

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