Sespe Creek

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California, United States, North America
Hiking, Scrambling, Canyoneering
Spring, Fall, Winter
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Sespe Creek
Created On: Feb 19, 2014
Last Edited On: Mar 9, 2014


Sespe Creek is some 61 miles long and primarily within the Los Padres National Forest. The headwaters are at Potrero Seco in the eastern Sierra Madre Mountains, and it is joined by more than thirty tributary streams of the Sierra Madre and Topatopa Mountains, before it empties into the Santa Clara River in Fillmore.  31 miles of Sespe Creek is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River and National Scenic Waterway, and is untouched by dams or concrete channels. It is one of the last wild rivers in Southern California. 

The name Sespe can be traced to a Chumash Indian village, called Cepsey, Sek-pe or S'eqpe' ("Kneecap") in the Chumash language in 1791. The village appeared in a Mexican Alta California land grant called Rancho Sespe or Rancho San Cayetano in 1833.

The inaccessibility of the Sespe Creek backcountry, related to the Sespe gorge and flash floods which make roads through the gorge impossible to maintain, has made the area an apparent refuge for a number of species who were extirpated elsewhere in southern California, including the California Condor, Southern Steelhead trout and possibly the California Golden beaver. In addition, the California Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) held out in the Sespe area until at least 1905, when a forest ranger reported tracks and separately hunters claimed they saw a grizzly in the vicinity of the Sespe Hot Springs and Alder Creek. The Sespe is one of southern California's last free flowing southern Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus) streams.  

You might also spot black bears, fox, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, rattlesnakes, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. The Sespe Creek flows through habitats of the California montane chaparral and woodlands ecoregion, and Riparian woodlands. 

The creek remains free from major habitat modifications and is noteworty for its lack of dams. After originating above 5,000 feet in the Sierra Madre Mountains in the northwest corner of the Ojai Ranger District, about 75 percent of the Sespe Creek watershed is characterized by numerous rugged slopes and canyon walls of the southern Pine Mountains. It flows intermittently but is characterized by a series of permanent deep pools. Major tributaries include the Lion Canyon, Hot Springs Canyon, Timber, West Fork Sespe and Little Sespe Creeks, although over 30 creeks and springs nourish it. Sespe Creek receives most of its rainfall between January and April, and furnishes 40% of the water flowing in the Santa Clara River.

The approximately 219,700-acre Sespe Wilderness Area encompasses 31.5 miles of Sespe Creek. Established in 1992, the Wilderness Area contains a 53,000-acre Sespe Condor Sanctuary. The stream is designated as a Wild Trout stream from the Lion Camp downstream to the Los Padres National Forest boundary north of and near the City of Fillmore.

Sespe Wilderness provides ample evidence of past violent geological upthrusts. The landscape is bleak and jagged, and if you climb high enough, you'll find pine trees growing at odd angles on boulder-swept hillsides. Sandstone cliffs rise as much as 500 feet above the water in places, and fabulous sandstone formations stand in portions of the area. You may see petroglyphs and other evidence of ancient Indians. 

Willett and Sespe Hot Springs are popular destinations.  Sespe has some of the hottest natural water in America.

Getting There

From Highway 33 north of Ojai, travel east on Rose Valley Road to Piedra Blanca Trailhead.  20W13, the Sespe River Trail, follows the river downstream from Piedra Blanca.  After crossing Lion Creek and Sespe Creek, turn right at the junction and head downstream.   Bear Creek Camp, 4.3 miles from trailhead, is a wonderful camp located on a large sandbar with a swimming and shade from cottonwood trees.  Kerr Springs, first year-round water source, is located 0.8 miles further, on the south side of the river off an unmarked small side trail.  Continuing towards Hot Springs Canyon, there are several more camps: Oak Flat (7.4 miles from trailhead), Willett (9.8 miles), Hartman (10.9 miles), Coltrell (14 miles) and Shady (17.5 miles).   Sespe Hot Springs is located 2 miles north of Coltrell.   The entire length of the trail has ten crossings of the Sespe River.  Use caution when travelling during the wet season due to the potential of flash flooding.  

Red Tape

Inside the wilderness only hikers and equestrians are permitted. Adventure or Interagency Passes are required to park at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. There is no human entry allowed in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Campfire Permits are required for stoves and campfires in the backcountry areas, subject to current fire restrictions.


There are car campgrounds available (Middle Lion and Rose Valley) and also many backcountry sites available.

External Links

Los Padres National Forest Alerts and Notices

Sespe Creek

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