Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sespe Connect Stage III, Piedra Blanca to Fillmore. 10/13-14/12

The dreaded "Alpine Start". Walking at 04:00.
Back to work and back in the drink. It's time for another installment of the Sespe Connect {Sespe Connect is a project that Jack Elliott and I have teamed for, the aim being to walk the entire length of the Sespe watershed}. Time to knock off the big stretch, the 32+ miles separating Piedra Blanca and Fillmore.This stage traverses the real Sespe backcountry and 19 of those 32 miles we spent hop-scotching the creekbed. We had both been looking forward to this most remote and native portion of this 65 mile river system. In the end, we flashed through the thing in just 49 hours.

To see Stages I and II trip reports:

Click on any image to enlarge.

Ruth dropped me and Jack at the PB trailhead at 03:50 and we were strapped in and got going at exactly 04:00. It was a double dark morning with no moon to speak of. Just the stars overhead and the long tunnel of light from the headlamp. We soon hit our stride and the miles started falling away as we hiked toward the east. Unlike any of our work on this project, this early portion of Stage III sticks to a trail, the Sespe River Highway (Trail), and we made the most of the early hour and easy terrain.

Not quite sunrise.

Sespe/Ladybug Junction.
Soon the sun was on the way up and we were able to stow the headlamps and pick up the pace even a bit more. We just flew down that trail. We passed through Willet Camp/Willet Hot Springs (9miles from TH) at 08:15, and continued on for a bit before taking the first real break of the day. We sat in the sun and had a bit of breakfast before continuing eastward. 

Our plan had never been to do anything other than our stated goal, so skipping on past the hot springs at Willet didn't cost us. Of course this means that I still have never visited these hot springs, but if they are like others in the SLP, (sulfery, algae filled, muddy and buggy, too hot or too cold) then I can take a pass (as in all things, I prefer the Sierra). Besides, we had places to be, things to do. Onward to Coltrell Flat and our departure from the Sespe River Trail.

Passing through Willet, which lies on the north side of the creek.
Coltrell Flat.
After a half hour Jack and I saddled up and knocked out the remaining few miles to Coltrell, passed by the flat and continued east on the connector trail that continues over to Alder Creek. At the point where that trail starts climbing up and out of the Sespe, we did the opposite. We turned down the Sespe and started hopping rocks and busting brush (though we didn't really have to deal with a lot of brush, especially when compared to the previous two sections of the Sespe that we've completed).

Jack, trying to stay "feet dry".

It was almost a relief to be off-trail. Off-Road. No trail. It felt good to be back in the sticks, back in the drink. We had, I think, become pretty accustomed to the Sespe and it's aquatic tricks and I had always looked at the Sespe River Trail as more of an obstacle to be eliminated as quickly as possible than a truly enjoyable and easy stretch of our project. I was happy to be back on rocks and water. We had put down 13 miles before 11:00 and about a mile down the creek from our put-in we decided to take a siesta. We took a noon lunch on a shaded sandbar after which we both found places to curl up and get a bit of shut-eye. The entire plan that we had pre-formulated proposed getting as far as the junction where the Alder meets the Sespe on the first day. Any extra mileage on the day's clock would be gravy. We took our nap about a mile upstream of that junction and I figured on pulling a few more miles out of the hat before late afternoon. We got going again at 2pm.

Fossil seashells.

A bit recharged after our nap, it was time to strap in for another leg of our day. It took some time but eventually we reached, and skipped past the Alder Creek Canyon. We didn't pull out to investigate whether there was any flow dripping down the Alder (I wouldn't count on it until we get a good rain). We continued downstream, mostly hopping rocks but almost as frequently using the hundreds of braided game trails that follow the creek. We saw a fair bit of bear sign and about a zillion deer tracks. There are places along this portion of the Sespe where one could argue that a use trail once existed, but that trail has been largely wiped out and what little remains is predominantly used by wildlife. It's a pick your own path, make your own way kind of drainage. So that's what we did.

Eventually the shadows grew long and we decided we'd had enough for one day. We took another break in the afternoon heat, during which we spotted a condor (too big to be anything else). We had a quick discussion about our plans for the evening before we got going again, that plan being to continue on until we found a comfortable place to camp for the night. And no further. I conservatively calculated our 1 day mileage at around 17. It was time to call a halt and save some juice for tomorrow.

We found our site shortly after deciding we were done for the day. Our camp was just a small sandbar on the creek next to a long and deep pool. There was an old, minimalist campfire ring and a stack of ancient deadwood at the site. This'll do. We dropped pack and went for a swim before doing any housework. It had been a great day, time to clock out for the night. After the swim we set up and brewed some coffee. there was a fair amount of discussion regarding the day's travels but our chatter generally tilted toward what we thought might be in store for us on the morrow. We each prepared simple meals and passed on a campfire. As the light fell we were treated to the evening bat show, little fellas carting and wheeling against a darkening sky, their sonic clicks echoing up and down the canyon. As night came we spotted a couple satellites and a few shooting stars. We were woken in the middle of the night by a loud and substantial rockfall just across the creek.
Me and my one luxury, the Crazy  Creek chair.

The pool at our sandbar camp.

Sandbar Camp.

We rose shortly after six and started packing up between sips of coffee. No doubt the day would be hard. We had so far barely penetrated into the Lower Sespe and today would see the lion's share of route finding difficulties, not because a canyon is easy to get lost in but because the Lower Sespe is chock-a-block full of house-sized boulders. We just knew it was going to be a tough day. So, coffee please. 

Eventually we had medicated the creaks out and we figured we were feeling about as good as can be expected after the day we'd just pulled. The morning had already warmed to tee-shirt weather. It was going to be a hot one. Time to get going. We left our sand bar at 07:00 and commenced with day 2 right where we'd left off.

A long way down-canyon.

Jack and I picked our way down the canyon, hopping rocks and sloshing through pools, thrashing through the occasional stand of brush which we couldn't bypass. Early in our day 2 travels we spooked a family of five deer (3 females, one small and one big buck). They fled the scene singly and in pairs, climbing up a steep slope of the canyon wall to get away from us. One of the deer dislodged a very large rock which loudly cartwheeled down into the canyon. At this point I reflected back to the rock slide in the middle of the night. Perhaps, I theorized, we had a militant tribe of deer out for our skins. After all, it is hunting season in D-13 right now. Maybe they're looking for a bit of payback.

As we descended we ran across lots more bear sign. We heard hawks and owls. We startled a great blue heron several times, the kind of situation where he'd see or hear us and fly downstream a bit before we'd catch up and the bird was forced to fly away again. We saw an additional pair of deer lower down the canyon and startled something big behind a stand of brush. We saw fish and turtles and a little water snake. We ran across several families of ducks. There is a lot of wildlife in this canyon. I felt, somewhat jokingly, that we were trampling fragile aquatic ecosystems.

Our Day 2 proceeded pretty well. We kept at it, pushing downstream. At places the canyon narrowed considerably, though not to the degree that would earn the name "gorge". These narrows usually meant that we were getting in the water. Speaking of water, I think that both jack and I were a bit surprised by the amount and flow of water back in the deep Sespe. We never had to worry about finding water because unlike our previous time in the Upper and Middle Sespe, we were on or in it all day. We were able to slosh through many obstructions and though we found many deep pools, we never had to take our packs off to get through them. All in all I was pretty impressed by the amount of water back there.

Spot Jack for some scale.

Less than a mile upstream of where Tar Creek flows into the Sespe is a similar, but smaller canyon that drains into the Sespe from the east, and here is where we entered the Sespe Rock Garden. Finding a way through the next several miles of building-sized boulders was at times fun, at times frustrating. Most of the time we found a way around these boulders by getting out of the creek and skirting the edge between rocks and brush. We did do a fair amount of scrambling and wading when possible. I found this serving of creek to be a climbers' playground, crammed with miles of untouched stone. The remoteness of the locale and the effort required to get here is the only reason this stretch of river hasn't become a bouldering mecca. That, and the fact that most climbers are generally pretty lazy until they get to where they're gonna climb, has kept the central Lower Sespe relatively untouched. I may have to mount a multi-day exploratory commission.

The old hand-painted sign on what used to be Tar Creek Rd.

We passed under the outflow for Tar Creek. Unsurprisingly, there was no water coming down the falls. I did get momentarily distracted by the old Tar Creek road, which is historic and horrendously overgrown with poison oak. Don't need to see that one again. Continuing on we continued to encounter more gigantic boulders, more clear and deep pools, more twists and pinches in the canyon.The day grew hot and the sun blazed off the white sandstone slabs. We purposely began spending more time in the water as the temps rose and that helped offset the heat. We still made great time descending and we soon stopped in the shade at the outflow of the West Fork of the Sespe. A clear and tasty stream of water flowed down this fork and I took advantage of the opportunity to refill my water (I very seldom use a filter and almost never carry one, which I don't recommend for anyone else but not filtering has worked flawlessly for me for years. I think it comes down to wisdom and common sense.).

A look upstream from below Tar Creek.

After a nice break at the West Fork we continued our unending slog down-canyon. By this point we had passed through the "Rock Garden" and were banging out the last stretch to Devils Gate. Eventually we were able to identify Cold Water Canyon coming off Bear Haven from the west. There was good clean flow coming down this little canyon. Once past that drainage we were entering the Devils Gate, which is just another narrows on a spectacular stretch of river that is full of such sights. Before long we were through the Gate and our creek hung a left to the east. We dropped out of the canyon and followed the river down a broadening wash.

Just passin' through.

A look upstream from within Devils Gate.

Finally we had made it to the lower-lower Sespe. The way out and the last miles of this stage. This portion of creek is somewhat monotonous and consists of more sand and more rocks. A final push led us to the big bend in the river where the Sespe angles straight south into Fillmore. We climbed up out of the creek and negotiated a couple of fence lines and one gate before we found ourselves on the pavement of Goodenough Rd. All done with Stage III. We dropped pack and I dug out my phone, but of course it wouldn't be that easy. We put our packs back on and walked another half mile before I could get service. A quick call to Ruth to come get us and this time the packs came off for real. We lay in the shade on the side of Goodenough for the next 40 minutes and then it was milkshakes at McDonald's. Another fine piece of work completed.
A view of Hopper Mountain from below Devils Gate.

Bear print in sand.
I'm pretty pleased with myself and Jack should be too. This was a tough piece of work to pull off in two days, but well worth the visit. We must have personally touched at least 250,000 rocks by the end of it, but the experience was totally enjoyable. What that place really needs is a few more decorative rocks.

Goodenough Ranch.

So that's it for Stage III. Coming down the pike will be the final tow installments. We've still got a bit of work to do before we can say we've walked the entire length of the Sespe. Stage IV will run from Goodenough Ranch through Fillmore all the way down to where the Sespe joins the Santa Clara River, and Stage V will be kind of like going out through the "in" door: Potrero Seco at the top of Hwy 33, the tippy top of the Sespe. We'll follow the creek down to where we started this whole thing, at Cherry Creek. Then and only then can we irrefutably say we know the Sespe.


  1. Doesn't seem like a bad stretch to hike in the SLP this time of year.

    Happy to see you're still going to take care of the two bookends. Gotta' do it all to make it count!

  2. I agree. We're committed now, though that's always been the plan. Was the best leg yet.

  3. I did that hike years ago. Had too much water in the narrows to wade through and keep pack dry, had to climb along the cliffs for a spot or two. Id still like to find a path from bluff camp through bear haven and down to sespe or even west fork. Last time I tried I couldnt get through the thick brush.

  4. Yeah Jay,
    That route over Cienega and down the WFork used to be a bit more accessible. I've never attempted it but it looks grim. -DS

  5. I dont get it. West Fork is quite a bit upstream from the Tar Creek Falls. You must have drank from another creek. I checked the map and it was probably Coldwater Canyon. If you ever are up the west fork, it is a real beauty place