Project Sespe Creek Connect: Stage I, Upper Sespe

Potrero Seco as seen in morning’s early light, the rugged and parched mountains of the Dick Smith Wilderness seen in the background. The rolling grass covered hills of Potrero Seco in the Sierra Madre Mountains form the upper boundary of Sespe Creek headwaters, just east of the Santa Barbara-Ventura County line.

“Sespe Creek is the last remaining undammed river in southern California, running through one of the nation’s largest roadless and wilderness areas near a metropolitan region. The California condor has been reintroduced in the area following a captive-breeding program.”

Tim Palmer, The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America (1993)

Sespe Creek Wilderness

A backcountry soared over by condors, trod across by bighorn sheep and within its eponymous stream southern steelhead shimmer. Iconic wildlife not as abundant as it once was, the grizzly bear and beaver and wolf regionally extinct, but still the great vultures, curled horned sheep and anadromous trout cling tenaciously, though precariously, to their natal realm.

The forested mountains and valleys having remained virtually untamed and the creeks untrammeled and unconquered by dams long enough through sheer ruggedness, and community and corporate wrangling over its best and proper use which was fought to a standstill, that the desolate hinterlands became, in 1992, the officially designated Sespe Wilderness. The name “Sespe,” an Anglicized rendering of a Chumash Native American village or rancheria called Cepsey in 1791.

Sespe Creek drains a watershed of some 270 square miles and flows about 60 miles through the Transverse Range in Ventura County. Thirty-one and a half miles of Sespe Creek are federally designated and protected as Wild (27.5 mi.) and Scenic (4 mi.). The creek begins at Potrero Seco in the Sierra Madre Mountains at about 5000′ elevation and ends at its confluence with the Santa Clara River at about 400′ elevation, the Santa Clara then draining to the Pacific Ocean. The upper reaches of the creek resemble its lower most extent, both being relatively flat, gravel and small cobblestone studded washes. The Sespe’s middle section, however, being more steeply sloped as it runs through deeper canyon terrain, is substantially more rugged and bouldery. It is, in sections during winter runoff, rated Class IV+.

Map showing Sespe Creek.

Map of Stage I courtesy Stillman.

The Project

David Stillman proposed we walk (& swim?), in segments, the entire length of Sespe Creek. It was an idea he had brewing for awhile and decided it was time to act on. And so the 60 mile off-trail task was assigned under the rubric of Sespe Connect.

This endeavor will be carried out over a period of weeks, due to the dictates of life’s other priorities, rather than any need or wish to prolong the desired march downstream. It is a peregrinatory project that when complete will weigh in on the balance of backcountry exploits with real value and meaning. Merely plodding along some short segments of the creek’s less glamorous sections separately, without eventually completing the whole length, would not warrant much if any mention; walking several miles of dry gravelly wash or muddy and stagnant creek alone being unremarkable. Stepping heal to toe over every foot of the Sespe, on the other hand, amounts to an undertaking worthy of note.

The first stage is comprised of the distance between Cherry Creek and Tule Creek, which measures, I don’t know, about eight miles. (Yes, for the sticklers reading this, we are aware that this does not officially count as the beginning of Sespe Creek.) This portion includes, at this time of season, open and sun-blasted dry gravel washes fringed in chaparral and descends into the deep shade of lush riparian habitat beneath fir, alder and cottonwood trees and amidst bushy willows. The stream intermittently running cool, sitting mossy and stagnant, choked in thick reedy flushes of pollen spewing cattails or dry lumpy beds of hard water stained boulders. And so it begins. . .

Yucca whipplei growing beside the dry wash of the upper Sespe.

The upper reaches of Sespe Creek downstream from Cherry Creek.

Looking upstream. The rock outcrop at far right on the ridge is the same one seen in the photo above.

Prickly Poppy (Argemone munita) (Hat tip Lanny Kaufer for ID.)

Blazing Star (Mentzelia laevicaulis)

Rumor has it somebody, not Johnny Knoxville, is going to dirt board down it someday on an old snowboard.

Nothin’ spruces up a battered old trailer home beside the creek like a stone facade entrance!

Sespe Creek at Tule Creek confluence.


Bradley John Monsma, The Sespe Wild: Southern California’s Last Free River (2004)

Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (1998)

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9 Responses to Project Sespe Creek Connect: Stage I, Upper Sespe

  1. Pam says:

    Love the pics! Smiled at the trailer home and love the snake.

  2. Nico says:

    Nice! You guys beat me to it. Another LPNF wanderer and I had discussed the idea of a Sespe Traverse a few months back. He was thinking of tackling it in stages like you guys. I’m holding out for a single multi-day straight shot from Potrero Seco on down to the Santa Clara.

    Thinking late spring (one of these years) for that attempt…

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Yeah, I’d prefer to do it in one fell swoop, too. I think that’d be the best and most fun. With the NOAA forecast of a season of above average rainfall this season, this coming spring, if you go then, might be interesting!

  3. doctorkdog says:

    Another great adventure! Love the pics, too. One correction: that’s a Prickly Poppy (Argemone munita), not a Matilija Poppy. That would explain why it looks so different. Fried-egg flower is almost identical.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Nice. Thanks for the correction! I actually didn’t think it was a Matilija at first, but Stillman had called it that and I just figured I’d never seen a juvenile one before. Not to credit him with the misidentification or anything, just saying. . .

      I saw a clump of these same poppies last year growing along the lower stretches of the Lost Valley Trail in the San Rafael. It was about two and a half feet tall or so and spiny or hairy looking and with a smaller bloom than what I’ve typically seen on a Matilija.

  4. craig says:

    Damn. It. This must be how Scott felt when he found Amundsen’s flag waiting for him (well, sorta).
    All props to you and DS, though. Great write-up and images … and, of course, a brilliant concept. 😉

  5. Deb G. says:

    Hi! Love your blog! It is much appreciated and close to the heart.

    We live in Fillmore where the Sespe River meets the Santa Clara River. Access upstream from town is prohibited by a land owner and has been since the mid-1980’s. Although we used to go above this property and make our way down to some old hangouts, most of our favorite swimming holes disappeared after the Day Fire took out so much vegetation that it changed the river dramatically with the rains that followed.

    It is unfortunate that the rivers are, “POSTED” to prohibit trespassing. However, having seen a mindless lack of appreciation for the wilderness by people with graffiti, littering, and being careless with natural and prehistoric native treasures, I understand the need to keep much of the public out. I’m curious about your permit process – did you do it all through the forest service? If not, I would appreciate an e-mail on how you managed to make the connections needed for your Sespe River journeys.

    We have been hiking the rivers, creeks, and streams around here and watching them change throughout the years through floods and wildfires. Some areas have precarious access, at best, so I have to ask if you use rock climbing equipment or do you hike around the large boulders and boulder pile ups that keep the Sespe wild?

    Also, how many bears and rattlesnakes did you encounter? Any mountain lions?

    Mid spring is my favorite time to hike or seek out a swimming hole on the Sespe. The water is cold but the hills are green and wildflowers are abundant. The last two springs, I had close encounters with rattlesnakes which slowed my forward momentum until I could stop imagining rattlesnakes in every nook and cranny. *Shudders* The wild and wonderful Sespe is not a place you want to be bitten by a rattlesnake because you are hours away from help. My mantra: Watch your step and listen for what sounds like a vibrating cell phone on a table. Remember, there is no cell phone service up the Sespe! It’s just a local rattlesnake calling to tell you that you’re too close.

    Happy Hiking!
    ~Deb G.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Deb. Thanks! We have not yet made the trek down the majority of the creek. We will be carrying the necessary rope and gear, though. Permission to pass through private property has to come from the owners not the Forest Service apart from where there is an existing trail easement.

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