For those who love a challenge, the day hike to the Sespe Hot Springs in the middle of the California wilderness is definitely one for your bucket list. Over the hours, you’ll move from lush Californian forest to golden rocky desert, until you reach the hot springs oasis of flowing geothermal water cascading into pools and just begging you to soak your weary bones in. And for more great mineral bone-soakers, check out this list of our favorite hot springs in California for inspiration.
|Address||Los Padres Forest, Sespe Wilderness, California 93252|
|Location||Sespe Creek, Los Padres Forest, California|
|Road Access||N/A. Hike-in only|
|Water Temperature||100 – 130°F|
What To Expect
Sespe Hot Springs, steaming in the Sespe Creek, is a magical place far, far away, and you’ll need to camp overnight in the wilderness to enjoy it fully, having hiked or ridden horseback into the area (no biking allowed). In fact, at just over 16 miles each way of a gentle grading trail, and with plenty of primitive camping sites along the way, and another (Willet) hot springs 9.5 miles in, you can easily break the trip up into as many days as you have the energy and supplies for.
It’s also a hot one, among the hottest in California – 190°F at the source and flowing over the rocks and into the Sespe Creek that runs along the bottom of the gorge, cooling as it goes. The temperature by the time the water cascades into the rock-edged main pool is about 105°F, but all this depends on the season and conditions. Also dependent on these factors, other pools form naturally along the stream, giving hikers the perfect chance to find the right temperature to cool off. One of the best spots for a soak at Sespe Hot Springs itself is across from the easy-to-find palm tree oasis. It’s also a popular spot to pitch a tent!
The best time to visit Sespe Creek is spring, as it can be dangerously hot and water sources can easily dry up in the 100+ degrees of the summer months. A warm winter soak is also nice, presuming no snow closes roads on your way to the trailhead.
Ideally, visit between March and early June, when the grass is green and the wildflowers are in bloom. Spring daytime temperatures average around 55°F to 70°F, and nights can drop to 40°F. Spring is also the busiest time for visitors, followed by mid-October to early December (daytime temperatures 60°F to 70°F, night temperatures sometimes dropping to freezing). In fall, you may get wind and rain. Don’t be surprised, however, when, any time of year, you bump into dozens of backpackers staying the weekend near Willett Hot Springs, 9.5 miles along the route to Sespe Hot Springs. It takes extra gumption to go the extra 6 miles you’ll need to enjoy the secluded and hotter Sespe Hot Springs.
“A water filter, chemical treatment, or boiling of the stream/river water is required before drinking…During my 32-mile round trip hike to Sespe Hot Springs, I carried a liter water bottle and refilled at most of the river crossings,” says Jessica of Hidden California.
The trail, which runs above and along Sespe Creek, is pet-friendly, but dogs must be kept on a leash.
Important Notes About This Trail
Cell phone service is limited to non-existent, so you’ll need to take a GPS device. There are pit toilets at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead and Willett Hot Springs campground only. Also, there are wild animals in the area, including the protected California condors, so please leave no food or trash as you hike and camp. During your hike and stay-over, you may well see deer, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, red-tailed hawks, or golden eagles. Watch out for the rattlesnakes crossing! Also worth keeping your eyes open for are poison ivy and poison oak along the trail.
There are several great campsites in Sespe Creek, including directly under the palm trees in that oasis we mentioned above. Be aware that fire bans can come into effect, or water levels can run high – check here for alerts and notices before you set off, and take food, like Omeals, which don’t need cooking, and plenty of drinking water! (When conditions are fire perfect, you will in any case need a permit for campfires and open-flame cooking). Also be aware that it can get windy there, particularly in the fall, so make sure your tent and belongings are secure before you sleep!
If you’ve read this far and decided you want a shorter walk, how about the 20-mile-round-trip overnight hike to Willett Hot Springs on the same trail as Sespe Hot Springs? In fact, Sespe Creek is such a beautiful place, it offers you the chance to hike as many or as few hours as you want towards the hot springs and stop, swim, and camp without ever going there. But let us try and tempt you to keep hiking…
Sespe Hot Springs in the Sespe Wilderness is one of the numerous natural hot springs to be discovered in the Los Padres National Forest. Congress established the Sespe Wilderness in June 1992, alongside the Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act, so as to preserve the natural qualities of the land. Through this congressional act, seven wilderness areas, making up 400,450 acres, were added to the Los Padres National Forest. The Sespe Wilderness, at 219,700 acres, was the largest of the seven wilderness areas to be designated.
A homeless, allegedly schizophrenic, man lived in Sespe Creek for some years recently. People called him Pan. He would chat with and occasionally expose himself to hikers/soakers, and the local authorities tried several times to find and remove him. We’re not sure if they succeeded, but there’s no harm in any case in keeping your food and personal belongings with you at all times.
How To Get There
Sespe Hot Springs is 50 miles east of Santa Barbara and 21 miles north of Ojai, California.
There are three ways to get to Sespe Hot Springs. In each case the way is long and, while the trail may be clear, there is also the chance it can get overgrown. Having a GPS device with you is a must as there is little to no cell service.
The most popular way to get to the springs is to follow the Sespe River Trail, 16.8 miles each way, starting at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead, accessed via Highway 33 and Rose Valley Road. You’ll start by heading east, and downstream, and will need to cross the creek eight times on this trail. During summer, the water will likely be shallow or the creek bed dry, but at other times of the year, be ready to get wet!
A $5 Adventure Pass is needed to park at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead ($10 if you’re staying overnight). As the visitor center closes early (around 4 pm), it’s best to buy online. Also, an option for adventurers is an annual forest adventure pass for $25.00 more.
The second way to Sespe Hot Springs is the Alder Creek Trail, 7.5 miles each way and rated “moderately difficult” to hike. There are two camping areas on this trail – Alder Camp and Shady Camp, the latter some 5.2 miles from Sespe Hot Springs and with guaranteed water year-round, while the Alder Camp water source tends to dry up in summer.
From Highway 126, at Fillmore, turn north on A Street/Goodenough Road to Squaw Flat Road which heads toward the Sespe Oil Fields on a bumpy, narrow road. The parking area and trailhead are at Dough Flat. The first trail junction is 2.5 miles north. There, turn left toward Alder Creek. The first camp you’ll come across is called “Cow Springs,” though this is exposed and has little water in summer. Some 3 miles on is Alder Creek and Alder Camp. If this is dry when you arrive and you need water, go downstream one mile from Alder Camp to Shady Camp. When you’ve relaxed and recharged, Sespe Hot Springs is 5.2 miles away.
The third way to Sespe Hot Springs is via the Johnson Ridge Trail, 9.5 miles each way and rated “difficult” due to its being a steep route with little shade and no water. The trailhead begins at Mutau Flat by Mt. Pinos Ranger District, with a steep descent into Sespe Creek.
Can I Stay There?
Yes. There are plenty of primitive sites on each trail – Los Padres Forest boasts 32 campgrounds. Use a GPS device to help you find them, and check here before you go because there may be seasonal or weather-related closures or restrictions.
Our top recommendation is that palm tree oasis we mentioned in the introduction – it’s close to the Sespe Hot Springs, meaning you can roll out of your sleeping bag in the morning and be the first into the hot water for a sunrise soak!
What Else Can I Do In The Area?
The Los Padres National Forest offers hiking, camping, and horseback riding opportunities, Sespe Creek being just one of them. Check here for alerts and notices before you go, because things around here are affected by the weather and closures do happen for your safety.
2.1 miles from Los Padres National Park is Sand Dollar Beach, a dramatic rocky landscape perfect for picnicking, swimming, and surfing.
For beautiful oak trees, giant boulders to scramble on, and cascading water, head to Salmon Creek Falls, only 2.7 miles away from Los Padres National Forest, and definitely one for your list. If you have the energy, head past the falls up to Silver Peak for some incredible views.
Also worth a visit is Limekiln State Park for its cool, deep forest, deer, bubbling creeks, and historical lime kilns, and the 1.6 – mile loop Pacific Valley Bluff Trail for truly unforgettable views – a photographers’ delight.
If you fancy trying out some easier-to-reach and equally stunning Californian hot springs, try the pools at Travertine Hot Springs (breaking in at 115-156°F!) or the family-fun Deep Creek Hot Springs in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. You’ll enjoy the majestic views of the cooler Buckeye Hot Springs, or the calm and orderly Benton Hot Springs, which offers a rejuvenating soak with impressive views on a well-kept family-run site. No doubt we’ll soon be adding more Californian hot springs to our list, so come back again and type “California” into the search bar.
To simplify your search for California’s hot springs gems, check out these listings:
The Dos And Don’ts Of Visiting A Hot Springs
Every hot springs has its own quirks. Visitors to Sespe Hot Springs, for example, need to be fully prepared for a long hike in the wilderness. Wear the right shoes, take plenty of water, and be ready for the ups and downs of the desert temperatures. For more general and very important “hot springs etiquette,” we highly recommend you take a moment to check out our carefully compiled easy-to-read list of “dos and don’ts” here. And always, always respect our nature – pack out what you pack in and LEAVE NO TRACE.
Frequently Asked Questions
At the source, it’s close to 190°F. The temperature falls the further away the water flows and the more it merges with the cool creek water. The biggest and deepest pool offers 105°F of soaking pleasure.
The Piedra Blanca Trailhead, which kick-starts your adventure in Sespe Creek, is 87.4 miles (2 hours 44 minutes) from Hollywood, California. From there, it’s a 16.8-mile hike to the Sespe Hot Springs.
Yes, but dogs should be kept on a leash and shouldn’t be allowed near the hot springs water as it can burn them.
Yes, if your kid is a tough one and happy to walk the distance. In reality, the Sespe Wilderness is not great for beginners, being best for experienced backpackers. Take the right precautions, keeping in mind sun exposure, heat, and comfy feet!
While we at Traxplorio do our very best to give you the latest information about these hot springs sites, life happens, weather happens, and property owners happen. We always recommend you go to the official hot springs’ web page and/or the relevant state authority page to check conditions, times, and prices (where relevant) before you head out. Thanks for understanding, and enjoy your soak!