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.

11 thoughts on “Magic in the mountains: A visit to Sespe Hot Springs

  1. I have a tale about my experience at the Springs that will blow your mind.
    My mind is still completely blown by this experience. There is no way to truly share the magnitude it had on my life. I would have to write a book and probably should.
    To put it in a nutshell I lived at the hot spring for the entire summer of 1976.
    I was only 15 turning 16.
    I am 61 turning 62 now. So you can see that even though it was 45 years ago exactly. I still think about and treasure this remarkable location and what it has meant to me.
    I went into the mountain right after school let out the last week of May 1976. I never left the hills the entire summer.
    Only packed out days before school began.
    So, needless to say, I started my junior year looking like I had been raised by wolves.
    I had spent the entire summer living wild on a white appaloosa horse in the hills and never even wore shoes except 1 time all summer long.
    The condors still flew overhead daily. A regular part of the landscape. You could hike right up into the cliffs and see their nests with babies from only a few feet away.
    It was my aunts idea. She was about 28 and a wild adventurous hippy type.
    She talked my Mom, a very free spirit herself, into going to a horse auction where we bought 3 horses and a pony.
    In anticipation of the trip my aunt made pack saddles for one house and two pack saddles for two black labs. I, my brothers of 14 and 17 , a six year old girl and my aunt, 3 horses, 2 dogs and a kitten set out on the adventure of a lifetime.
    On an insane, unforgettable and wild journey, my mom rented a 4 horse trailer and towed it behind our grand torino woody sided station wagon. She drove us into the mountains in the middle of the night to Lyons camp, where I awoke in the morning to the dawn of the greatest outdoor adventure of my like.
    I had no idea where I was or what lay ahead. I was just a kid after all.
    I did not come out a kid though. I came out a seasoned, hard-core, can survive anywhere, outdoors, animal. A 15 year old, 100 pound, blonde, freckle faced, young girl that had the heart of a wolf, the freedom of condor, and the soul of the mountain forever impeded in my heart.
    Me and my white horse Troy owned every mountain, trail, creek and little lake from Lyons camp and bear creek, to the hot springs, the sauna and the hills beyond.
    I can tell you so many stories of the people the events and the location long before it got spoiled and closed off.
    Its nice to know it is still available at a cost.
    I know someone dynamite the sauna a week after I left and a fire swept through later that year also.
    I caught the last year of the lush unspoiled version of Sespe, as that was the first year of drought.
    Its much dryer and bare now. The main pool looks a third the size and the main wall has caved in or otherwise been destroyed it appears. The plexiglass window built into the wall for viewing and to light the pool at night with a Coleman lantern or candles appears to no longer exist.
    The waterfall looks intact.
    Is there still a cave underneath and behind the waterfall? It may still exhist but has always been largely a secret.
    If you tuck way back in there, there is room for two people to sit together behind the falls. If you go there again check it out.
    Its a squeeze at first but opens up in the back.
    Anyways I got to go for now. Maybe I will send you a good story or two if your interested. Ask me anything. I really want to go back after 45 years but this is the best I can do for now. To see what others are saying about the place even decades later, sure takes me back.
    It was like a dream.
    Maybe I should right a book about the place.
    Its a hell of a story and should be told.
    Thanks for at least inspiring me to share.
    Terri . The horse girl of Sespe Hots Springs.

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    1. Hi Terri! Thanks for much for sharing this story with me. Definitely sounds like book material. I am not sure what waterfall or plexiglass you are referring to, I didn’t see anything of this nature at the source of the Sespe hot springs. I am curious how you provisioned for an entire summer without going back to civilization for supplies. Feel free to write me on email! evanquarnstrom@gmail.com

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      1. Cool. Yes. In 1976 there was evidence of a lot of manpower having been put into the building of the pools and sauna. I am thinking it was intentionally removed when it was made a wildlife destination to keep it natural.
        I think it should have been left intact. It was safe well constructed. Took tons of works and made it even more magical.
        Could be nature just took its toll but I know there was some vandalism after we left.
        The sauna was built right over the rocks where it bubbles ot of the ground.
        Someone had brought in lots of lumber to construct it.
        It was basically a wooden cabin right over the water so the heat would rise into it.
        It had a flap style front door that was a rubber and carpet combo that held in the heat but let a person enter and exit easily.
        It was about 5 foot wide and about 7 feet deep with benches on either side. The farther in the hotter it got. It was scorching on there. Cracking the door to let in fresh air was the only way to really enjoy it except at night and even then it was 🔥
        The pool had been very large. Enough for 20 people to enjoy at the same time.
        The pools all along the creek where enjoyable as they cooled on the way down stream.
        So any temperature one desired could be found.
        The main pool,we called it, had been built with lots of concrete that had to be trucked in.
        The walls were built quite high all around the pool making it really deep.
        When building the wall a large plexiglass window was constructed within the wall and a good foot under the water with an shelf to place a landern in the window.
        This lit up the pool at night just like a swimming pool.
        It was beautiful and magical.
        A glowing oasis of per joy in a landscape of endless rocks and brush.
        If I was not on my horse I was in that pool.
        The waterfall was a long overhanging concrete ledge the size of a persons hips.
        We would take tuns sitting in the spout which was the only way the water had to escape at that time. It was a single stream of water going through to main pool.
        The pool water would back up and get at least a foot deeper before we would release the water into the smaller pool below. We would then take turns standing in with our shoulders under the ledge and let the entire excess pool water flow over our shoulders. It was our mountain back massage. One could do it alone by filling pool then dropping down for your water massage. I could do this all day.
        As far as provisions. We lived on staples only as no refrigeration or any kind.
        So beans, rice, dried potatoes and dried goods lots of oatmeal and pasta.
        My aunt who had followed in an old Volkswagen beetle, we had gotten some help getting it through the tank traps to the springs. She would follow someone out to the traps in the bug. Get a ride with that person out of the hills. Hitchhike to town where she would stock up on staples with foodstamps and somehow convince someone to get her back to the bug. Mostly hitchhiking and praying for a break.
        Get back to the bug and drive the groceries back in.
        I know she did this at least 2 times.
        I do remember almost going over the cliff at the tank traps in the back of an old world War 2 ambulance trying to get food past the tank traps one time.
        I could feel it sliding over the edge and starting to tilt and heard wheels spinning and shouting outside, when the truck we where chained to gunned it and pulled us off the edge.
        Why on earth did they make me and my brother stay in back I will never know. Everyone else got out for safety.
        So it was a death defying journey getting food in even once you were that far in.
        There was rattlesnake and turtles, fish and tree squirrels that was cooked and eaten but I was never that hungry 😋
        Lots of fish to catch and eat I did do that.
        On the weekends people who came in had cold beer, grapes, steaks and food we never got otherwise. It was heaven.
        Everyone was so interested in knowing us and hearing our stories that they fed us pretty good on the weekends.
        The rangers looked out for us regularly and even sent someone in to shoe our horses to keep us from having problems. We all became good friends. That did not stop them from writing my aunt a ticket for having drove the bug in though.. But then complimented us on our skills and ingenuity. LOL
        We had various friends that we made over the summer there, who would come in at night and we would wake up to bacon and eggs cooking. One guy even brought in bales of hay, grain and dog food.
        It was tricky to keep the horses and pony out of the gimsome weed. Not sure how you spell it. Did not need a crazy horse running loose.
        We did not coral our horses.
        They were free to roam all day long. We would picket them at night to a small rope.
        In the beginning we had hobbles to keep them from going far but after seeing they can still go incredibly far in a day and even run wearing them,we tossed that idea and we all lived on an honor system, even the horses.
        We took care of them. They did not run away on us. It worked great.
        One horse did become injured at the end of the summer. The rangers offered to helicopter him out but my big brother walked him out on foot. 28 miles to the paved road to bring him home.
        I was not there for that walk.
        It was a walk of love that gave me lots of respect for my brother.
        He was 17 years old and all alone, it took 4 days.
        Thats Love.
        Thanks for your interest.

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      2. I have never been back but would like to.
        Any chance you will be going next spring?
        I want to return and have talked a friend into joining me. It would have to be in the spring at the soonest, as we both have broken legs right now.
        I never hiked in the back way and know there are a couple options. All grueling.
        I would love to plan a trip if you want.
        You could be our trail guide and I can be our spirit guide and tell you the secrets of this mountain that have never been told.
        Think about it.
        It might be a really cool adventure.
        You never know till you set out into the unknown.
        Stay in touch if you want to do this.
        Just planting the seed for now.
        Thanks again for your article.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. 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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      2. That’s right you drove through Rose valley.
        The last paved road was Lyons camp.
        You could drive to bear creek in anything just about. It was dirt road.
        Right outside of bear creek were the dreaded tank traps the rangers called them.
        They were built to keep anyone out who did not have a 4 wheel drive and knew how to climb with it.
        The cliffs falling into the raven thousands of feet below just feet from the edge kept most everyone out.
        This was in 1976.
        I lived there all summer and the only people we saw usually hiked in the back way on the weekends.
        The road is gone and only trails now. We lived on horses and it was our home in the wild.
        I only ran my horse out of the hill once all summer to save a guy bitten by a ratt l e snake.
        Anyone else go in 1976.
        You would definitely remember the horse people.
        Would love to find someone who has a picture or video.
        Glad its still being enjoyed.
        Terri the horse girl of Sespre Hot Springs

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