One of my favorite hiking destinations!
I have been going out to the Sespe for about 35 years now. I never fail to enjoy it. It is vast, 219,000 acres of land with hundreds of miles of little-used trail plus much of it is surrounded by little-used national forest. When I want to be alone, I head out there. The areas to the north and east of me are also beautiful but more heavily used.
This is despite the closest corner being within an hour’s drive of the monster urban center that is Los Angeles.
Part of the Sespe is the Condor refuge. That part is closed to the public. There are trails near the refuge that have been closed down because of all the microtrash people tend to drop. Condor chicks eat the microtrash because it is bright and/or shiny and then die. Humans are an incredibly lazy and trashy species. I managed to get down Tar Creek Trail before it was closed, maybe 15 years ago, so I have been somewhere you can’t go to today.
Most of the trails in SoCal are old roads for mining, ranching, forestry, oil exploration
and so on. The Alder Creek Trail is no exception. Along it, you encounter abandoned drill sites and occasionally abandoned equipment. One of those old oil roads heads right up the middle of the refuge along a right-of-way a quart mile wide. This is the Alder Creek Trail, a sliver carved out of the refuge to continue allowing hikers access to the Sespe River Trail via Dough Flats trailhead.
Drive N of LA on Interstate 5. Exit and go west on CA highway 126. (Pay attention to the speed limit, this road is infested with police from multiple jurisdictions just waiting to nail you.) Maybe a half-hour down the way you enter the small town of Fillmore. Turn north onto A Street, proceed through a few stop signs and then hang a right onto Goodenough Road for a few miles.
Goodenough Road stops being a nice paved road. On the left is a gate into a ranch and on the right, a disintegrating paved road turns right and heads up the hill. Near the beginning on the left are piles of trash people dumped there.. This road exists for mainly oil company trucks and oil workers heading into the oil fields just north of you. They don’t seem to care about litter. The next ten miles is going to become increasingly entertaining as you proceed.
Goodenough Road goes from bumpy and scarred pavement to bumpy gravel and back again. About 4 miles up and you’ve reached the top and a sign indicating “Condor Viewing Site, 7 miles”. You’ll pass various oil company assets that have been gated off. On the left will be a large area that used to be a ranger station, then a fire station, then nothing, and now HQ for the oil field. Keep following the main gravel and dirt road for about 5 miles.
This is not a road to be taken lightly. At the best of times you want at least a vehicle with some road clearance. Doesn’t have to be an SUV but it would help. Drive slowly and mindfully so as not to hit the worst of the bumps or run over one of the many small landslides. Do not attempt beyond the sign when it might rain or within 2 days after it rains unless you have some serious 4WD action going on. I can have a fun time in muck up to my axles and covered in mud from stem to stern. YMMV.
Somewhere near mile five, you need to make a decision. The road will veer to the left across a paved stream bed. It will have a gate on it that may be open or closed. To the right, there will be a gate on the road going to the Seneca Oil lease. Up to this point, the oil company does enough road work to keep the road passable. If the gate is closed your decision has been made and you will need to proceed on foot for the next 2.2 miles. If it is open…. heh…heh...heh.
This trail used to be in perfectly good shape for an automotive trail. You could make it back to the trailhead with a standard 2WD sedan if you were very careful. Done it many times with a 1965 Comet station wagon, a 1999 CRV and a Toyota Sienna and have seen less capable vehicles than that back there.
The times have changed. The Forest Service has no money. It cannot maintain vehicle trails anymore. Once you have passed the last oil company turnout, there is no maintenance at all. Unless you have good tires, 8 inches of clearance and good weather, it could get dicey. OTOH if conditions are bad you might require much more capability.
So, of course, I drove all the way without hesitation. I have a 1994 Suzuki Sidekick. ‘Kicks are legendary in their off road capabilities and mine is lifted with oversize tires. Put it in low range and I can go damn near anywhere. Roads like this are why I keep it.
Purring up the road, what to do I see but a pair of deer!
After driving across some uphill trail-Hell, I get to the trailhead. There is nobody there on a Wednesday mid-day which doesn’t surprise me a bit. Local temperature is about 90 but a slight breeze keeps it from being oppressive. I strip down, saddle up and am on my way.
There is good hunting here for deer and quail. In CA you have to hunt with lead-free ammo, though, because the condors pick up pieces of lead from carcasses they scavenge. Very NOT good!
The foot trail has been recently maintained. New signpost with the old sign. Along the way they added signs indication the Condor Sanctuary begins an eighth-mile on either side of the trail. Actual log steps added in high erosion locations. Thru the deep grass, a foot-wide section has been scraped clean. Shrubs that impinged have been trimmed back.
Initially there’s a bit of a steep climb. You start at about 2800 ft and go up to about 3100 ft. in about a half mile. That is a 12% grade in most parts, enough to get my blood pumping. There there’s a bit of up and down and you come to Squaw Flat trail camp. This is where I fire up the SPOT and send home an OK message, more to let my wife know I have it and it is working and to get this picture for the blog than anything else..
Not a bad place. Fire ring made of rocks and scrap metal from the oilfield. (Of course no fires now, given the extreme fire danger.) Old lumber for bench seats. Decided to nap here for a couple hours. Sun hot. Shade of giant oaks, nice!
Next section is climbing to the summit of the trail. Squaw Flats camp is at about 3150. Summit is 3700. Most of the 550 feet is done over about a half a mile. Once again my heart pumps real hard to get me up a few sections of 15% slope.
I rest and hydrate and enjoy the cooler late afternoon air. On my return, I noticed what looked like a black blob on a dark hillside. Then, it moved and the brown muzzle, black nose, shiny forward-facing eyes, and round ears of a bear appeared. I look at it. It looked and me. A bare and a bear both froze completely and inspected each other for maybe 30 seconds at about 40 yards. I tried to get to my camera without disturbing it but the instant my arm moved it was off up the hill. I was turning the camera on as I pulled it from the pouch. Hit the button the instant I had it swung in the generally correct position.
One shot was all I got. Did you know bears can run as fast as a racehorse? The sky blew out my exposure. After fighting with it for 15 minutes in PhotoShop, this is what I managed to get.
I must have hiked or backpacked in the Sespe hundreds of times. Look at that map. Look at the size of that place! I access it from the north and south of Pyramid Lake. I access it from the north of Lake Piru. I access it north of Fillmore. The Cedar Creek-Fishbowl loop I blogged about earlier is part of the Sespe. You can go in from the seminary N of Santa Paula. Ojai has trails that lead there. All along CA highway 33 and Lockwood Valley Road, there are access points. The Sespe has several hundred miles of perimeter and access spots are far apart. The closest corner is only an hour from LA and yet I can go on most of its trails on a weekday and be confident I won’t see another human.
Sadly much of the western area is now closed due to fire damage. Chaparral will recover quickly if we have some decent winters. Trees take much longer.
Sespe in the spring is exceptionally lovely with does with young fawns, greenery, and wildflower displays. I could go on and bore you but I can do something that you’ll enjoy instead. Here is a collection of photos I’ve taken over the years along just the Alder Creek trail on dayhikes and backpacks. Sit back and enjoy yourself!