From the rock layer beneath the Los Padres National Forest, several hot springs bubble to the surface. But the Sespe Hot Springs, in the heart of the Sespe Wilderness, have a reputation among hikers as the hottest in Southern California.
No one, it seems, keeps an official ranking of hot springs, but having soaked in a few natural hot springs over the years, I wanted to answer the question: Is Sespe Hot Springs tepid, like dishwater, or "¡Ay, caramba!" hot?
On a warm fall morning, I packed water, a lunch and a topo map and set off into the 219,700-acre Sespe Wilderness, north of Fillmore in Ventura County. Rangers for the national forest suggested I take the Johnston Ridge Trail, a 9 1/2 -mile dirt path from Mutau Flats to the hot springs on the floor of Hot Springs Canyon.
Fall is probably the best time to visit the hot springs -- when cooler temperatures make the long, dusty hike and the hot springs a bit more tolerable.
As a travel writer, I'm often lambasted by outdoor enthusiasts who are livid after I write about a secluded camping spot, an out-of-the-way meadow or a breathtaking hiking trail. Such publicity, they say, will inundate those few remaining pristine corners of God's green Earth with crowds, litter and noise.
This is not likely to happen with the Sespe Hot Springs. This spot is so far from civilization and requires such an investment of time and energy that it is unlikely to be overrun.
From the Golden State Freeway north of Gorman, I took Frazier Mountain Park Road west into Lockwood Valley. From Lockwood Valley Road I turned left on Mutau Road and headed southeast about nine miles until I came to a trail head for the Johnston Ridge Trail at Mutau Flats. (The dirt road is well-marked.)
The word "wilderness" usually brings to mind a mass of lush, green foliage. But from the trail, the Sespe Wilderness seemed mostly dirt and rocks, sparsely populated by towering pine trees and dry chaparral. Along the trail, shade was nearly nonexistent while lizards were plentiful. They seemed to scurry away with every step I took.
The lizards were my only company that day, except for an older couple dressed in camouflage whom I met as I headed into the wilderness. They were hiking out. The man was hoisting a huge hunting rifle over his shoulder. (Hunting season in a designated area of the wilderness runs Oct. 11 to Nov. 9.) The old hunter said he had killed nothing that day but spotted a doe a few miles down the trail. When I told the couple I was headed for the hot springs, they looked at me as if I had told them I was headed into the heart of Mordor.
They had reason to worry.
There is not a drop of water along the trail. Without shade, the long trek will dehydrate any hiker foolish enough to try the journey without a sufficient water supply. And a soak in the hot springs will only make matters worse.
The trail was easy enough to follow, thanks to recent trail work by the California Conservation Corps.
About three hours after I began -- three hours and an elevation drop of about 2,000 feet -- I reached the floor of Hot Springs Canyon, where I could see Sespe Creek, zigzagging south over smooth gray boulders. Along the wall of the canyon, I spotted a crack -- about 20 feet above the canyon floor -- where spring water bubbled out and trickled down into the creek. From the trail, the water looked cool and inviting.
Near the bottom of the fissure, someone had built a 3-foot-deep pool by arranging large river rocks in a semicircle along the creek bed. I dipped my bare feet into the pool but couldn't tolerate the heat for more than a couple of seconds. It felt like sticking my toes into acid.
I had no thermometer to measure the temperature, but the water felt just a few notches below boiling. Throw in a couple of carrots and some chicken broth and you could cook up a vat of soup.
Maybe farther down the creek, away from the source of the hot springs, the water would be more tolerable.
About 200 yards away, I found another man-made pool, nearly the same dimensions as the first. I was so sure I could endure the water here that I stripped down to my swim trunks and stepped in up to my hips.
Dumb move. I jumped out like a cat fleeing a bath, muttering "too hot, too hot. . . ."
But after such a long hike, I wasn't going to be denied my payoff: a relaxing soak in a natural hot spring.
I hiked down the creek another 200 yards or so and noticed several rock piles -- cairns -- marking a pool in the shade of a bushy palm tree. Obviously, someone wanted to mark this spot for others.
I stepped into the water tentatively, being careful not to slip on the green moss that coated the rocks in the creek bed. The water was hot, perhaps in the 100-degree range, but not scalding. I sank down up to my chest and took a deep breath.
This spot was nearly perfect. The palm tree kept the afternoon sun from beating down on my head and a patch of grass along the creek's shore gave me a spot where I could eat my lunch. Birds warbled, crickets chirped and a gentle breeze rustled the palm fronds.
Paradise in the wilderness.
After a few minutes, my legs felt like wet noodles. But how was I going to get my wet noodles to carry me 9 1/2 miles up to Mutau Flats, a gain of 2,000 feet?
It was a tough slog.
By the time I reached my car at the trail head, the sun was sinking below a distant ridgeline, and my legs and back muscles ached. What I really needed, I told myself, was a nice, hot soak.