Backpacking Sespe Creek Wilderness

Photo: Kiersten Rottmann
Trip Date: March 19-21, 2021

Trail Overview

Trail: Sespe Creek trail

Distance: 32 miles round-trip

Elevation Gain: 3,138 ft.

Location: Los Padres National Forest

Permits: Wilderness permits are not required for overnight stay. A California Campfire permit is required.

The Story

It was officially the first backpacking trip of the year. 32-miles in the middle of Ojai, CA and thankfully, it was the last few days of winter. We would welcome spring with packs on our backs and get our feet wet, if not soaked, with something like 26 creek crossings. Yes, I actually did count those crossings- on a map before hiking the trail. Okay but really, I lost physical count after the 7th or 8th crossing, and having to remove your socks and shoes got pretty annoying after the 1st.

From GPX files to weather conditions, permits, and of course all of your camping and hiking gear- one can never be “too prepared”. Yet, I still forgot to grab my food bag and campfire permit before running out the door. Luckily, I remembered about the permit before I lost service and was able to screenshot it and save it on my phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember my food bag until I had got to the trailhead, but thank goodness for awesome friends.

Late Friday evening I would meet those awesome friends, Kiersten, Carly (whom I met that night), and Nova (the dog), who drove from Arizona to meet me at the trailhead in Los Padres National forest. Original plans were to hop on the trail Friday morning, however, with a few car issues in Arizona, we didn’t get on the trail until 9:30 PM. A little worried because the parking lot was crazy; nearly packed and yet we scored the last two spots. I was really surprised that they wanted to hike in at night, especially after the 7-8 hour drive, but happy that they talked me into it. I truly enjoy night hiking, but this was only my second time starting a trail at night, rather than ending a trail at night. Either way, it was perfect. The weather was a bit windy, but nothing too crazy, and the trail was super easy to follow, although I was following a trail on my maps, I didn’t need to pull it out very often.

Almost immediately, our first creek crossing. Nothing too crazy, but trying to cross at night with only the light from our headlamps, was a bit tricky. We didn’t have a goal that night, just to get on the trail and start hiking. The first hot spring, 10-miles in, would be a bit too far to try and make the first night, so we all agreed to stop about 5-miles in at a trail camp called Bear Creek. When we arrived at Bear Creek, we stumbled upon a dozen or so tents, and being close to 10:30 PM, everyone was already sleeping. We followed the trail a little further and then got off trail right before our 2nd big creek crossing, where we found the perfect spot to stop for the night and set up camp. All pretty tired, and I’m sure they were exhausted from the drive, we set up camp and knocked out within the hour. It was nice to fall asleep to the sounds of the creek and there were so many frogs!

It rained that night. Of course, just enough to get everything all wet and muddy, but again- sleeping to the sound of rain falling on the tent, was so peaceful. Not to mention, it was officially the first-night backpacking this year. The season has officially begun folks. It was around 7 AM when I woke up and peeked outside my tent. Sunrise had just ended and from the looks of the passing clouds in the sky, it was going to be a chilly morning. We all took our time packing up, ran into some friends who had recognized us from Instagram and they had started the trail early that morning. We were all headed to the same place and eventually ran into them on the trail and we all camped and soaked together, it was pretty neat.

Back at our first campsite, we tried to avoid having to take off our shoes again so soon, so we followed a side trail that eventually leads us over the creek, and up a hill, and through some bushes. Well, then there wasn’t a trail anymore, so we were officially bushwhacking our way through this very dense forest, on hands and knees with packs, and a dog. Luckily, I had downloaded a trail on my phone where we were able to hop back on and vouch that we weren’t going that way on the hike out.

I had attempted this hike several years ago in the middle of August. Silly me. Ojai in Sespe Wilderness gets very hot and is usually pretty dry. At least from what I remember, of course, on my first attempt we didn’t get very far. But this hike in was by far unlike anything I had hiked in so close to LA. There was so much water, of course, that made the creek crossings fun- not challenging, but fun. We definitely chose the right time to go. And as always, we didn’t run into many people on the trail! Always crazy how packed the parking lot can be, yet you can truly find solitude 5,6,7 miles in.

When we reached mile 10, we stopped for a water break and had a choice to make. Do we stop at the first hot spring or continue and hit up the first hot spring last? We ran into our friends again who had just finished soaking in the first springs, they enjoyed it and said that if we go, they recommend that we drop our packs before because the hike up is pretty steep, but either way they recommend that we check it out. Still having 5 miles to the creek, we decided to keep on trekking and maybe set up camp before reaching the creek to avoid having to carry our packs the entire way. After walking and talking with our friends, it was confirmed that we would all be camping near the creek and I couldn’t be more excited.

I always enjoy finding things that I have researched before the trip. Signs are also my favorite. When we reached the final sign, we were exhausted, excited to be nearby, and excited to drop our packs and soak. And then we saw them, the palm trees. Out in the middle of nowhere Sespe Wilderness. The most beautiful set of palm trees next to the most amazing creek. There was a kid camped out under the palm trees, the best spot there in everyone’s opinion, who had been quarantining before going back home. He was backpacking in paradise for the next 10 days, just living the life, playing the ukulele he had purchased from the thrift store before hitting the trail. He was great company and a rolled amazing joints. Lol.

So, we arrived. We arrived and we too scored an awesome spot, where we ran into our friends and set up camp. I forget how the conversation started, but they had asked us if we had enough water for drinking and cooking, and then I remembered… we were supposed to fill up cold water from the other creek before heading to the campground. The creek was about a mile away. Thank goodness our friends had extra water. When I say extra, I mean they were prepared with carrying in 8L of water to camp. A ‘water baby’ I think is what they called it. Thank goodness for the water baby. Water baby saved my life. The trail sign that I was excited to see before getting to camp, was supposed to be a reminder to get water, but I was just excited to see something familiar and to know that we were close.

Either way, all was good in our world, we soaked the rest of the day until the sun went down and the stars came out. We enjoyed each other’s company next to the campfire with a few shots of whiskey and called it a night. For tomorrow was going to be a very long hike out and for my Arizona friends, a very long drive home..but of course not after soaking in the first hot spring that we saved for last…

It was a windy night, but I slept well. Maybe it was the soak, maybe it was the whiskey, either way- I woke up in good spirits and wanted nothing more than another quick soak. So when I peeked my head outside of my tent to find my new friends at the hot springs, I threw on my now half-frozen suit to meet them, but they were getting ready to head in my direction to a smaller pool. They were only planning to soak their feet, but I wanted all in. Eventually, my friends joined us that morning where we decided that swimsuits were unnecessary and enjoyed yet another amazing soak before yet another amazingly long hike back.

You could only imagine how hard it was to leave this place, but when we did.. we knew we were on a mission. 15-miles back to the trailhead, but first 5-miles back to the first hot springs! Being a Sunday afternoon, we had hoped for fewer crowds as this tub isn’t known to be very big and can only hold so many adults. After our 500th creek crossing, we found the perfect spot to drop our packs before the climb up. So glad that we did because that climb was no joke. But when we made it, obviously it was well worth the climb. There was a couple there who was getting ready to leave, just as we arrived, and 2 other girls who had shown up at the same time we did. We kept our suits on for this one and enjoyed great conversation with them as we soaked in the hot springs tub that really did fit probably 6 adults. And 30 mins later, we knew it was time to head out and officially start making our way back out. Perfect timing too because about 6 people showed up as we were leaving, and that’s probably just about as much as that tub can hold comfortably. We said our goodbyes and made our way back down to the main trail.

Of course, the story doesn’t just end with 10-miles left back to the car. Oh no. We still have 400 creek crossings, one of which I decide to fully submerge myself because why not get everything wet, including my socks and shoes, underwear, and leggings. Forcing me to now hike out in shorts, which I am not a fan of because I have chicken legs. But now dry chicken legs nonetheless. I strapped my socks to the front of my pack, looking like a true backpacker- or homeless person? No idea at this point. But then somewhere along mile 92 and 456, I came across a single flower. Tall and sturdy as it stood there before me, blowing with the wind, slightly shorter than I, and I remembered that it’s all part of the adventure. Because with 10-miles back to the car, somethings bound to happen and a lot more is not. With 3-miles left to go, the sun starting to set, and from the silence from the trail, we all knew each other was exhausted. Too tired to talk, or engage in conversation we hiked out in silence and it was at that moment I felt complete.

It was the backpacking trip I needed to kick off the season. It was the backpacking trip I needed to see if I can hike that many miles in a weekend, in a day. And it is. It’s all possible. You just have to be willing to laugh through the tough times, make do with what you’ve got, and when all else fails, just go with the flow, just don’t fully submerge unless you really have no other choice… 😉

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Vanessa is an outdoors enthusiast, hiker at heart, and the storyteller behind Forever She Wanders; a women's lifestyle + travel blog inspiring all to get outdoors, seek adventure and live an active lifestyle. As an outdoors enthusiast, Vanessa has found passion in being outdoors while backpacking, camping, hiking and creating memories of a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “Backpacking Sespe Creek Wilderness

  1. This sounds like such an awesome first backpacking trip of the season! We have such a long way to go before we can backpack here in Alaska because there’s still sooooo much snow, but now I’m dying to get back out there!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!


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