The Sespe Wilderness Area is vast. Within it are enough trails to keep an active hiker busy for years – or for someone like me, for a lifetime.

A few of the trails are more active. The “biggie” is the Middle Sespe River Trail which connects to the Sespe River Trail. It follows the Sespe River for much of its travel through the wilderness area, passes two different hot springs and finally meets the Alder Creek Trail at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Another popular – but slightly less used – trail is the  Piedra Blanca-Gene Marshall Trail. In addition, there are many lesser-known trails, a few bushwhacking routes, and many miles of truck and ORV trails.

Last Wednesday I finally managed to match up availability and realistic temperatures for a hike. Up in the northern end of the wilderness area, there is a little incursion called Grade Valley Road. It is a left turn off Lockwood Valley Road. In good weather, all you need is a moderately high clearance vehicle to traverse it. In bad weather, it can be difficult even in 4WD.

After doing various chores around the house I finally managed to get out about noon. It was about 90F at 1400 ft elevation when I left but by the time I reached the trailhead at 4500 ft. elevation (1:30pm), it was down to 82.  I worship at the altar of the dry adiabatic lapse rate.

I parked at the primitive parking area and headed down the trail. There were no vehicles at the Fishbowls trailhead, no vehicles at a second access point to Fishbowls, and no vehicles at Cedar Creek. Plus it was Wednesday in the afternoon and nobody ever starts a hike then. I had no concerns about stuffing my clothing into my pack as soon as I was out of sight of the road. Clad in socks, boots, sunglasses, and, hat, I continued on.

I know you think I am mad but there is something extraordinarily primitive and satisfying about being naked in the wild. I take care to avoid the textile impaired. (Actually, I try to avoid humans in general as much as I can in the wild.) In the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County, as long as I am not behaving lewdly or hunting down people to expose myself to, it’s not illegal.


After 50+ years of it, I can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have surprised me when I was “freehiking“. (Be mindful and you’ll notice other hikers long before they notice you.)  and I’m not worried. My policy is to use my hat as an emergency coverup until I determine the attitude of the other hiker(s).  There has rarely been a negative response. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t still try to be polite about it.

Starting at the trailhead I headed inland and here is what I saw along the way.

If you look at the map, YOU ARE HERE is not where I was at. That is the Fishbowl Canyon trailhead. I was about a mile south of there at the Cedar Creek Trailhead. The two connect and make a nice loop with about a mile or two on Grade Valley Road to connect them. I’ve done the full loop before but today I am only going halfway. Plus a fence to remind us that the National Forest is still an area where cattle ranchers make a living. Didn’t see any cattle but I did see a lot of cow pies.

Top left is a bear print. Front paw, probably an adult.

To the middle, we have a much smaller paw print of a coyote or possibly a domestic dog in the 30 lb. range. I am betting on a coyote because of the lack of human sign in the immediate vicinity and the presence of coyote scat. You can tell coyote scat from dog scat as it is usually powdery white from unabsorbed calcium and often contains hair. And you can tell a coyote track from a bobcat track because the heel pad is in the shape of an “A”. A bobcat has one in the shape of an M.

Last picture is difficult to make out but captures 6 ft of a snake track. There are a number of large snakes out here capable of this but I’m betting on gopher snake or rattlesnake.

I’m not so good at identifying wildflowers. I learn them but then I forget them. Anyone who wants to identify these, feel free. We have Jimsonweed, aka locoweed. Then a thistle and a wild rose. Then there are rose hips, California goldenrod, and thistle gone to seed. Next row is California suncup, California Aster and I’m not sure. The bottom row of 3 is I’m not sure, and the very bottom is scarlet bugler.

Rose hips are edible but full of seeds. Rose petals are edible too. Thistle leaves need to be boiled to lose their sting and resemble spinach when cooked. Jimsonweed (Datura genus) is very dangerous and potentially lethal due to high alkaloid content – atropinehyoscyamine, and scopolamine.

There was a bit of humidity out there. I kept a close eye on developing cumulus clouds to the north, probably coming off Mt. Pinos. When you see a cloud like this it is important to track its motion. You can’t rely on surface winds because winds change with altitude. The best way to do that is to compare it to a tall vertical object like a tree. Clouds that are moving right at you are the most difficult to track. If you can check it with two objects at different angles it is easier. These clouds passed to the west and never really looked like cumulonimbus (thunderstorm clouds).


This is a bit of 550 paracord. It is ubiquitous in the outdoors (actual size is 1/4 inch). 550 refers to the tested breaking strength in pounds and of course, these are originally used for parachutes. There is a fair bit of stretch to it so as to cushion the impact of the chute opening. If you open one up you can extract 7 different nylon braids plus you still have the shell. Fantastic resource in the wild if you need cordage for any reason.

You know, I’d love to do Naked and Not Particularly Afraid: Southern California Edition. Just a bit beyond my resources.

I am always looking for expedient shelter. First, there are a couple of shots of a rocky overhang. (I realize that it will fall off sometime in the next ten thousand years or so but probably not today.) It is not the best shelter if there is lightning around. The third shot is the same rock viewed from outer space. The marker indicates a flat smooth spot where I took a nap. It also demonstrates the usefulness of a SPOT communicator or similar device for anyone who wanders thru the bush.

(N.B. – It did fall off after a distant earthquake just a couple years later.)

Bottom two pictures are a hollow stump from a burnt-out tree and another hollow tree that has been cut down as it was a danger to the trail. There is just enough room under it for a person to lie down – after having made sure there were no hostile fauna species already occupying it. With a little time, you could dig it out for more room.

I thought the top picture was an interesting image. It looks to me like a native American woman washing clothes or perhaps grinding something on the metate. To the right, this was once possibly some kind of ceremonial location. There would have been a circular structure built within it. Might have been a sweat lodge but I am not an expert. It was probably built recently as it wasn’t overgrown. Then there is a weird rock with a hard top that kept it from being eroded away over time.

Next row shows some of the iron stain left behind in one dry riverbed and the calcium deposits in another section. The last picture looks like someone had target practice at a rock outcropping but it is really rocks suspended in a sedimentary matrix.

Once you get to Cedar Creek Campground the trail begins going up and you can get a better view of the surrounding terrain. This entire area burned over in the Day Fire and you can see recovery in the chaparral. Chaparral certainly doesn’t want fire but as long as they don’t happen more than once every decade or so it can recover very nicely. The top is burned off but the roots remain intact to resprout.

You can also see the effects of drought in the bark beetle-killed trees. The drier areas are more affected while the moister areas are resisting it. About 800 ft. of elevation gain later we intersect with the Pine Mt. Lodge Trail while the Cedar Creek Trail continues on as the Fishbowls trail.

Right now I am thanking modern medicine and cortisone injections for making this possible. Otherwise, I’d have serious pain and swelling right now.

Time to return. But the trip would not be complete without photos of the fauna I encountered.

The big guys were all in hiding. Most large mammals are crepuscular, meaning they prefer times around daybreak and sunset to be active. The little rust-red lady is a velvet ant, which is really a wingless wasp – Dasymutilla occidentalis. They are also called cow killer ants. Trust me, you do not want to be stung by one. If you want confirmation just watch this Brave Wilderness clip. Next to her is a tick. Found it on my leg. Ticks are really easy to find without clothing on. This one would have been there even if I had worn my usual cargo shorts.

Next picture we have behavior I have never seen or read about before. (You have to click on the thumbnail for the whole picture.) You can see a raven and some other bird in the upper left corner. In the lower right is a red-tailed hawk. Hawks like to eat nestling chicks. Two different species of bird teamed up to annoy the hell out of this hawk and drive it away.  Even more amazing, they appeared to be coordinating the attack with one bird chasing the hawk into the gun sights of the other one. Switch birds and repeat.

Bottom row we have Larry the lizard and a butterfly I managed to catch with the lens. More ominously to the right, this is a very fresh deer leg. This wasn’t the original kill or consumption site or there would have been more clues to be found. It was about 20 feet from where I was napping.

It was probably killed by a hunter and coyotes got a piece of the carcass and dragged it here. You can’t really see it but the cut looked more like a knife than being torn off. It hasn’t been hunting season for 9 months. Poachers? Maybe. Or it could have died from natural causes and I misinterpreted what I saw.

It was 86F at 5:30 when I got back to the car. Reluctantly dressed. I probably could have done the entire 17-mile loop but I was too fat and lazy.

Hope you enjoyed my latest little adventure. I’ll try to manage something else next week.