Willet Hot SpringsSespe River Trail, out and back
Roughly 500 feet of elevation loss
Peter, Jennifer, and Ariel West, Lucie Birnie, and Corrina Peipon
After a stop at the Los Padres National Forest ranger station for a fire permit, we wound our way up route 33, a quiet, scenic road that climbs around 2,000 feet via gentle curves and long switchbacks with a couple of dramatic hairpin turns. At the Piedra Blanca trailhead, the parking lot was full, so we improvised a couple of spots along the side of a horse corral. With all of our fussing over gear and clothing, it was at least another hour before we set out, and the temperature was already in the high seventies.
We made a couple of stream crossings before entering the Sespe Wilderness, a nearly 220,000 acre expanse of remote desert hills. The red dust and rubble path held a steady presence over the low, rolling mountains dappled with chaparral, and it wasn't long before I felt like I was out in some kind of wonderful nowhere. It was hot, though, and it seemed like we were all a little off: uncomfortable or thirsty or hungry or tolerating ill-performing gear. Following a minor squabble over water, I walked ahead into a kind of silence that's not so easy to find. I sat down on a rock and let the heavy air settle over me while I tended to my feet. I'd decided to wear running shoes with thin hiking socks for this walk. Since I knew it would be hot, I left the sneaker insoles behind to gain a little more room for my feet inside the shoes. My little toes were already blistering, and we weren't even half way to our camp. I cleaned off my feet, put moleskin and bandages on the blisters, and put my shoes back on, tying them as loosely as possible. I stood up and walked on, trying not to hobble.
At an unmarked camp where the river was lined with cottonwood trees, I stopped to get some water. Jennifer arrived as I scrambled up the embankment, and we watched the silver white cottonwood pollen drift aimlessly through the still air. I left Jennifer to wait for the rest of the group and walked further into that beautiful country. The trail to Willett Hot Springs follows Sespe Creek, a meandering waterway that describes a verdant green line through the dry hills and rock formations of the Sespe Wilderness. Flowing west to east, the creek is dotted with rock lined swimming holes and hot springs. I thought about the trail I was walking on and about the Chumash people who lived in these canyons for generations.
I stopped at the junction of the spur trail to Oak Flat camp and looked back to see the rest of the group taking a game trail down to the river to cool off and get more water. I kept on another couple of miles until I encountered a small group of backpackers skipping rocks at a lovely beach camp. I crossed the creek, following a trail that I thought might lead to Willett camp. As the path continued south, I turned around; Willett Camp would be farther east, and I was surely going out of my way. Back on the main path, I passed another small group of backpackers who'd set up their camp in a shady spot adjacent to the trail. Just a bit farther along, I found Ten Sycamore Flat and figured this would be our camp for the night. I continued on, looking for Willett Hot Springs and other promising campsites. Passing through a shaded site occupied by two small tents, I found an old stone hearth and the ruined foundation of some kind of building, and I thought about the effort required to build a home in a place such as that.
Wondering if my friends had come through yet, I turned around, passing a trail that I hadn't noticed before leading up a steep hill. I walked back down to the beach camp and sat on a rock. Even though it was getting late, I didn't want to set up camp without everyone else weighing in on the site. I was relieved when I saw them round the bend, and we made camp at Ten Sycamore Flat as the sun began to set. After confirming the way with another backpacker coming back from the hot springs, we set out up the hill on the trail I'd noticed earlier. Climbing 280 feet in half a mile, the path leads up the side of a hill, curving around into a small canyon. Near the end of the path, we found a well-used campsite with a large fire ring. Just beyond the fire ring, the path loses legibility, obscured by rocks and mud, leading into a dense forest of trees and vines clinging to rock faces. At the apex of the narrow canyon is a landing with a metal tub filled with opaque jade water and surrounded by old growth and forest debris. I'd never seen such a thing. The hot springs I'd been to before were at lower elevations, bubbling up from below. This spring falls from a rock high above, and the water is funneled through a pipe into the tub. As the light grew blue and dim, we settled into the warm mineral water and wondered who brought this huge tub up here and how.
Soon, darkness encroached the canyon, and bats chirped all around us, chopping the air with their wings as they swooped down toward the warm water. I wanted to sit there for a long while, but I was nervous about walking down the steep trail in the dark. We all had headlamps and flashlights, but the path was only about a foot and a half wide, covered in scree, and exposed on the southwest side to a sheer cliff. Safely back in camp, we cooked up some supper and hit the sack, never bothering with a fire.
No one slept very well, and it was slow going once everyone was awake. I was anxious about the day ahead. It was already hot, and it would just get hotter. We had ten miles of exposed trail to cover, and my feet had only gotten worse over the course of the previous day. I'd resolved to wear only socks for the walk back, as it had become impossible for me to put my shoes on without pain.
We set out. It was hot.
A horse and rider came around a bend, leading a string of mules. I stepped aside into the weak shade of a sapling. As he passed, the impossibly handsome cowboy looked me squarely in the face and smiled a greeting. "Not one for shoes today, I suppose," he said, and continued on.
It was a long day, and though it was difficult going, my feet were more comfortable without my shoes. Stream crossings never felt so good as they did on that walk. At the widest crossing, we stopped for lunch, and I was glad for the rest. Pressing on, the marker at the border of the Sespe Wilderness promised that I was close, but the last stretch back to the Piedra Blanca trailhead seemed interminable. Usually, I am reluctant to leave the trail, a little sad at the prospect of returning to the city. In this case, I was glad to pull my car into a shady spot, take off my dusty socks, and sit down. My feet were dirty and swollen, a little bruised and in pain, but I made it back on my own.