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Sespe ... condor-rugged wilderness in Santa Barbara's backyard.

Sespe . . . condor-rugged wilderness in Santa Barbara's backyard

From the air, the Sespe looks not formed but whittled. Knife-edged ridges divide sandstone gorges. Incised in rock, streams tumble and pool, then slip behind cliffs. It seems right to introduce this mountainous chunk of Ventura County, about 30 miles northeast of Santa Barbara, from an airborne vantage. The Sespe is probably best known as the stronghold of a great flier, the California condor. But even if you're earthbound, April and May are prime months to visit--and day-hike or backpack in some of the wildest country Southern California has to offer.

A rugged land, a potential wilderness

The creek that gives its name to the region rises near the Santa Barbara County border, then flows east and south for 55 miles to join the Santa Clara River near Fillmore. Its watershed comprises 270 square miles--a heavily faulted meeting of Coast and Transverse ranges. Fir and pine cover the highest slopes, at 7,000 feet, but more characteristic is the lower-elevation chaparral: manzanita and sage on hillsides, alder and sycamore near streams. Congress is currently debating how best to preserve this rugged region as wilderness. Senate measure 637, authored by Senator Pete Wilson, would create a Sespe Wilderness from 197,047 acres of the Los Padres National Forest and protect 27.5 miles of Sespe Creek as a wild and scenic river. S. 1625, sponsored by Senator Alan Cranston, would designate more wilderness--280,300 acres--and declare all 55 miles of Sespe Creek wild and scenic. Hearings may be slated for this spring.

Sampling the Sespe: by car ... or on foot

In spring, the poppy-lined 35-mile drive along the Sespe's western edge is one of the prettiest in Souther California. From Ojai, take State Highway 33 north 15 miles to Rose Valley. Detour here if you like (see hiking options at right), then head northwest past Beaver Campground to Sespe Gorge, a popular spot for local rock climbers. Fifteen miles past Rose Valley, you can detour east on Pine Mountain Road. Six miles later, State 33 meets Lockwood Valley Road at the Ozena Ranger Station. From here, you can head east on Lockwood Valley Road 35 miles to Interstate 5, or return the way you came. Hikers and campers have many options. Reach these from State Highway 33. Rose Valley. From State 33, turn east on Rose Valley Road. In 7 miles, you reach 30-site Lion Campground ($6; water). Both this campground and nearby trailhead parking can fill up on weekends. From Lion Campground, cross Sespe Creek to Piedra Blanca Trail, which twists through magnificently eroded sandstone. You reach Piedra Blanca trail camp in 2 miles, Twin Fork trail camp in 2 1/2. Lion Campground also marks the western end of the trail to Sespe Hot Springs and the Sespe Narrows. Pine Mountain. From State 33, take dirt Pine Mountain Road 7 miles east along the 6,500-foot ridge that marks the northern boundary of the Sespe watershed. On clear days, views extend south across the Sespe to the Pacific and the Channel Islands. There are two car camps, Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak, neither with water. Hikers can head 1/2 mile downhill to Raspberry trail camp, or east along fire roads to Reyes and Haddock peaks.

Sespe Narrows: tough but unforgettable

When old hands talk about what makes the Sespe special, they always get around to describing the portion of Sespe Creek north of Fillmore. The trip requires a sense of adventure and a few days' time. By no means should it be attempted if rain looks likely or if the creek is running high; check with the Ojai ranger office before you go. There are three access points. Arrange a car shuttle or return the way you came. From Lion Campground, it's a 17-mile hike east along the creek to Hot Springs Canyon, 1 more mile to Shady trail camp, 2 more to Alder Creek trail camp (both convenient bases). From Hot Springs Canyon you hike south for a day or more--10 miles through the narrows--then return. There's no trail, just boulders to hop and pools to swim. Ojai ranger John Boggs suggests you line your backpack with plastic, and carry rope and even an air mattress to float your gear across pools. From the north, drive east from State 33 on Lockwood Valley Road for 15 miles. Take Mutau Road south 14 miles to its end. From Mutau Flat, hike 5 miles south--on a shadeless motorcycle trail, unfortunately--to Old Sespe Road, then head east 0.3 mile to Sespe Hot Springs, whose 210 [degrees] waters are said to be the hottest mineral springs in Southern California. They feed cooler downstream pools where you can soak if you want (although they suffer from beery overuse on weekends). To go on, follow trail or creek 0.8 mile southeast to Sespe Creek; head east along the creek about 1 mile; the Alder Creek trail leads to the east to Shady and Alder Creek trail camps. Or, from Fillmore, head north on A Street (becomes Goodenough Road). In 3 miles, turn right on Forest Road 6N16 and drive 10 miles to the trailhead at Dough Flat. The road is winding and dusty, but trailhead and trail give spectacular views of Sespe ridges and peaks. From the trailhead, it's a 5 1/2-mile hike northwest to Alder Creek trail camp.

PHOTO : Piedra Blanca (white rock) takes on ocher cast at day's end. Sandstone formations are the

PHOTO : Sespe's hallmark.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:915
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