Long Weekends: Survival of the Sespe

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Outside magazine, October 1994

Long Weekends: Survival of the Sespe

An honest-to-God wild river two hours from Los Angeles
By Andrew Rice

Sespe Creek has miraculously survived the hell-bent development of the last half-century and is now the last river in southern California not shackled by dams or concrete channels. Not that it hasn’t been tried–plans to dam the Sespe go back more than a century–but economics and the creek’s labyrinthine geography stymied every attempt.

In 1992 Congress permanently protected most of the Sespe when it declared the 32-mile run between Lion Camp and Devils Gate a National Wild and Scenic River and set aside 219,700 acres of the surrounding peaks as the Sespe Wilderness Area. The creek traces a 55-mile semicircle through the scrub-covered Topatopa Mountains above Ojai; just 90 miles from the L.A. megalopolis, its
deep canyons harbor a hiker’s refuge of swimming holes, waterfalls, trout pools, and alder-shaded campsites.

If the Sespe were a ski mountain it would be divided into three runs: The middle Sespe, from Lion Camp to Sespe Hot Springs, would be the bunny hill; Pine Mountain, Reyes Peak, and the Sespe’s tributaries would be rated intermediate; and the lower gorge, below the hot springs, would be marked double black diamond–experts only.

The 17-mile trail to Sespe Hot Springs starts at Lion Camp at 3,000 feet, 20 miles northeast of Ojai on Rose Valley Road, and meanders down through a broad canyon. If it’s a hot day, you can take a plunge in a sandy-bottomed pool nestled between water-sculpted rock outcroppings about four miles down the trail. A mile farther the canyon deepens and Bear Creek boosts the Sespe’s
flow. From here the trail crosses an ever-growing Sespe six times. You can either push on to the hot springs in one day or lay over in one of many campsites along the way; good bets are the old Willett Ranch homestead, at the nine-mile mark, or Ten Sycamore Flat, about ten miles from Lion Camp. The pools at Sespe Hot Springs descend a side canyon from a fissure that gushes
210-degree water; even though this blast blends with the cool creek, bathers occasionally get burned, so test it carefully before jumping in.

If it’s views you’re after, head to the top of 7,255-foot Pine Mountain and adjacent Reyes Peak, where you can see all the way to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. From the trailhead at the end of Pine Mountain Road, off California 33, the Reyes Peak Trail skirts the ridge between the two summits, alternating stretches of pine-shaded forest with precipitous views of the
upper Sespe watershed. After about three miles the trail descends steeply, switchbacking until it reaches Haddock Camp, a primitive campground among the ponderosa pines that line the headwaters of Piedra Blanca Creek. Most campers hike back to the trailhead after a short stay, but the trail continues another nine miles down to Lion Camp, leaving the possibility open for an
all-downhill trek if you shuttle.

On the opposite end of the Sespe Wilderness, the lower gorge is the roughest river canyon you’ll find in southern California. The trail begins on Goodenough Road about 13 miles north of Fillmore and runs ten miles along a ridge before dropping steeply into Alder Creek Canyon. When it heads over another ridge toward the hot springs, forgo the trail and keep following the creek
as it spills through an alder- and sycamore-lined canyon and catapults through a stair-stepped mile of boulders the size of houses, hemmed in by hundred-foot cliffs. A mile farther you reach the Sespe in the shadow of 5,203-foot Devils Heart Peak. The large sandbar here is a great campsite, with wild cherries growing on the opposite bank across a 50-foot-wide swimming hole. (There
are lots of black bears here, so hang your food.) Downstream, the canyon quickly narrows, eventually becoming impassable to all but the most aggro hikers who’re willing to climb over huge boulders and swim through narrow pools–only to have to turn around and do it all again.

Backcountry permits aren’t required in the Sespe Wilderness, but you’ll need a fire permit, which you can pick up at the Ojai Ranger Station (805-646-4348). The nearest outdoor gear store is the Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura (805-643-6074), 18 miles south of Ojai. Both the Ojai Ranger Station and Great Pacific Iron Works sell the maps you’ll need: the Los Padres National
Forest map and USGS 7.5-minute quads of Devils Heart Peak, the Topatopa Mountains, and Lion Canyon ($2.50 each).

If you’d rather be guided into the Sespe, call Tony Alvis, founder of Los Padres Wilderness Outfitters (805-648-2113), who’s been running oneto five-day horse-and-mule trips there ($110-$125 per person per day) since the early seventies–when this part of the Sespe was still a proposed dam on some engineer’s drawing board.

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