In 1992 it became official: the Sespe Wilderness. But this land near Ojai has always been a wilderness. It remained a wilderness after Don Carlos Antonio Carrillo and his Rancho Sespe cattle operation and the gold miners of the 19th century came through; it even retained its wilderness character when oil companies drilled wells in the 20th century.
The Sespe area had long been recognized as something special. In 1947 a 53,000-acre Sespe Sanctuary was set aside, primarily to aid the then rapidly declining condor population. After many years--in 1992, to be precise--conservationists, particularly the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, succeeded in persuading Congress to proclaim the 219,700-acre Sespe Wilderness, as well as to designate 31.5 miles of Sespe Creek as "wild and scenic."
Sespe Creek, one of the last large, free-flowing rivers in Southern California, rises on the Santa Barbara-Ventura County border and flows 55 miles from its headwaters to empty into the Santa Clara River near Fillmore. Its wildness is apparent from the air; airline passengers often get a glimpse of the bold Sespe Gorge and the fractured country surrounding it when their planes fly over it on the way to and from Los Angeles International Airport.
In some winters, the Sespe is notorious for its floods, which can dislodge boulders the size of freight cars. More often it's a mellow watercourse that beckons anglers, swimmers and hikers.
For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 4, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 4 Travel Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Recently I received a call from an Ojai Ranger District official about a hike I took 2 1/2 months ago, and which ran in last week's travel section ("Something Special Awaits Along the Wild Sespe River," June 27). The ranger said the last two miles of the road leading to Lion Campground has been closed to vehicle traffic in order to protect the endangered arroyo toad. Trail users must walk or bike the now-gated road (two miles) to the trail head. Overnight camping at Lion Campground also is prohibited.
Before the wilderness designation, and before floods in the late 1970s wiped it out, a four-wheel-drive road extended from Lion Campground to Sespe Hot Springs and then to the border of the condor refuge. The remains of Old Sespe Road are now part of the Sespe's creek-side footpath.
Backpackers bound for Sespe Hot Springs, 15 miles downriver, and to Sespe Gorge beyond trail's end, are the primary travelers on the trail. While the hot spring is too far for a day hike, the Sespe serves up other delightful attractions--deep pools; sandy beaches for sunning; sparkling, rounded, multicolored river rock. Instead of striving for a goal on this hike, simply wander as far down-creek as you desire.
Directions to trail head: From Ojai, follow California Highway 33 north for 14 miles. Turn right onto dirt Rose Valley Road and drive six miles to Lion Campground. Park in the day use-hikers' parking area at the road's end.
The hike: Cross Sespe Creek and follow the trail briefly north to a junction with Piedra Blanca Trail (a path that visits the area's white rock formations). Sespe Creek Trail forks right and travels along the north bank of the creek. In the first mile you'll cross Piedra Blanca Creek and Trout Creek before a sign welcomes you to the Sespe Wilderness.
En route, numerous right-branching side trails lead down to the river. The main trail does not cross the creek until Bear Canyon, 4.5 miles from the trail head. This crossing is a good turnaround point, but feel free to hike on the fairly level Sespe Creek Trail as far as you think you can travel and return in a day.
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Sespe Creek Trail
WHERE: Los Padres National Forest.
DISTANCE: From Lion Campground to Sespe Wilderness Boundary is 2.5 miles = round trip; to Bear Canyon crossing is 9 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Pools and sandy flats along the creek.
HIGHLIGHTS: Southland's last great free-flowing river.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Los Padres National Forest, tel. (805) 683-6711; Ojai Ranger District (805) 646-4348. Precautions: Adventure Pass required.