Memorial Weekend – Sespe Creek

Old age and wisdom always beats youth and energy.

I first heard of Sespe when J. Liao and I were planning on going to hike half-dome in Yosemite, a hike I had done when I was still in school but haven’t been back since. There was an issue with the permits not being transferable, so we decided to do the Sespe loop instead. We started packing our things on Friday in order to leave Saturday morning, and we had agreed to leave SD by 5 am in order to start hiking around 8. You’d think that since I was driving  that I would try to sleep around 9 pm…I ended up sleeping around 12 am and woke up around 4. Then A. Chen and I met up with JL and his dog, Morgan around 5:15. We finally got to Fillmore around 8, but had to stop by Vons to pick up some supplies and get some coffee and sandwiches before we started hiking (I’ve never had to wait so long for a sandwich at subway a fast food sandwich place in my life). We got our sandwiches and headed towards the ‘Dough Flats’ trail head, taking nearly an hour because the unpaved road was so windy and we had to avoid a collision with a oil truck towing a few trailers.

We finally arrived at Dough Flats and began our hike towards the Sespe Hot Springs around 10am. The initial hike was fairly straight forward and pleasant as it was partly cloudy with a nice cool breeze. However, the hike became harder once we hit the switchbacks. It seemed as though the trees and shrubbery were trying to keep us from continuing on the trail so we had to use a machete ($18 from REI) to hack our way through the thicket. Not only were the trees trying to hold us back, but every few minutes, JL and I would have to clear spikey/prickly flower buds out of the toes of our vibrams. Towards the end of the switchbacks, I noticed a dark stick along the path and had just stepped next to it when I realized that my foot was less than 2 feet away from a very large rattlesnake. I immediately jumped back, and waited for the gargantuan reptile to move off the trail before continuing on Alder’s Creek. After a few hours, we reached a fork, one side continued to the point where Alder’s connects to the Sespe, which had a 10-15 foot drop (extremely difficult with a 60 lb dog), while the other path continued towards the hot springs. We opted for the hot springs, but this path went straight up a mountain and then dumped us down to an upper portion of the Sespe. By this point, we had hiked more than 10 miles over a span of 6 hours, and we only had a few hours of daylight left. We started searching for the hot springs, but couldn’t find it as this part of the hike was off the maps that we had printed out, and after 2 hours of searching, we disappointingly decided it would be best to set up camp. We were tired as none of us had more than 4 hours of sleep the night before, and we still had to gather firewood (an easier task with the machete/saw), set up the tents, cook our meal (bowtie pasta with sundried tomatoes, dried basil, sausages, and some salt and pepper), and clean up.

The next day, we woke up early in hopes of getting through 10 miles of trail early so we could enjoy the rest of the day at the Tar Creek waterfalls that we had read about. So after a simple breakfast of oatmeal, we packed up and headed down the Sespe, however we were not prepared for what lay ahead. We thought that there would be a clearly marked trail that we would blow through in a few hours. We ended up bouldering the entire 10 miles at a pace of <1 mile/hour. During this time, we were all stubbing our toes against the boulders, and as Vibrams isolate each toe, I’m sure that I fractured both my pinky toes. There were portions of the ‘trail’ in which it was impossible to continue without getting wet. Sometimes we would have to cross the creek to get to a walkable area, which was terrible because small gravel would get into our shoes when we got out of the water, forcing us to stop to empty out our shoes. Thankfully, we didn’t have to swim through certain parts of the route, though had we come right after winder, we wouldn’t have gotten away with carrying our packs above our heads and walking through the squeezes. We also tried sticking our packs into garbage bags and floating them down the creek, but our garbage bags had holes, defeating the purpose of keeping the packs dry. What was even worse was that after we had gone into the creek, After about 9 hours of bouldering (at one point, AC got injured from a loose rock that slipped and cut a deep gash on his shin), we reached a part of the path where we had to use a rope to climb down onto a propped log, which took some problem solving with a large dog in tow. As we continued, we stumbled upon a camp, where we were introduced to a group of 6 backpackers. The men had been backpacking since Thursday and were shocked to hear how far we had traveled (“My goodness, you guys are crazy! You did in one day what we did in 3 days!’) After chatting with them, we went further down and set up camp as the sun was setting, and had a simple meal of ramen. Never before has instant ramen tasted so good.

The next day, we set out to find the waterfalls, and we were told by the other hikers (who hike the sespe at least once a year, one of them comes every weekend!) that the trail to the waterfall was easy to follow, and that we would be able to get there without any issues. So naturally we were confident that we would be able to spend a few hours enjoying the pools. We were wrong…again. We had missed the turn to get to the falls and wandered aimlessly at the top of the plateau, searching, at first, for a way to the falls, but later for a way out of the labyrinth of bushes and thorny plants. What was even more frustrating was that fact that we could see the falls and hear the sounds of joy and laughter from the people enjoying the refreshing pools of cool water. After a few hours of searching, we got fed up and tried heading back down to meet up with the other hikers.

This is when things got from bad to worse. We took a wrong turn, and ended up going down a ravine thinking it was a path. After going down a few hundred feet down loose rocks and boulders (the product of a landslide sometime in the past), we realized that there was no way down without 50 feet of climbing rope. At this point, we only had 500 ml of water left for the 4 of us while baking in the midday sun. We pondered our options, and decided the A. Chen and I would climb back up, find the trail, hike down to refill the waters, climb back up, and climb down the ravine to help JL and Morgan. So we split up the remaining water and lightened our packs with only what we really needed. While we were climbing, we discovered that we were in an area that we had not seen before, coupled with the confusion brought on by dehydration, we floundered at the top, at which point I suffered a bloody nose from a rogue broken branch. Bleeding, thirsty, and confused, we tried yelling to JL to call 911 for a rescue helicopter, which he tried 6 times, but as cell phone signals in ravines are shoddy at best, the call didn’t go out. AC and I then retraced our tracks and ended up finding the trail again, yelling JL to hold off on the call until the previously agreed 6 pm deadline. As we hiked down, we left various pieces of clothing and strips of trashbags to mark the trail that we were taking.

Finally headed in the right direction but in desperate need of water, we bumped into George (one of the hikers) who recognized us from the previous night, and asked us why we were still on the mountain. We explained our situation, and he kindly gave us a bottle of water. He said that the rest of his group was further down the mountain and that they might give us some more water, and that he would help JL when he got to him. We thanked him, and asked if he could mark the trail with strips of the trashbag that we gave him. He kindly obliged, and we continued down the mountain. AC at this point was running on fumes and could not continue, so he sat in a shady spot to rest as I continued down to the creek. I bumped into the rest of the hikers, and explained the miserable state of our group and pleaded for help. They gave me a few sips of water and gatorade, and then went to help AC as I set out to finish my task of refilling our waters. At this point, I had no more energy and started praying with desperation that I’ve never felt before (I definitely had help from above to keep me going). Finally, I got to the creek, and refilled the water while drinking 2 liters, and hauled the rest back to where we left JL.

On the trip back, I was so focused on getting the water back that I stopped noticing the frequent pain that the shrubs had caused me throughout the trip (they made my arms and legs look like they’d been attacked by a horde of ravenous rabid cats). I bumped into AC and we continued on and found JL back on the trail an hour before the deadline. We then followed the trail of trashbag strips and finally connected with a well-traveled path where we caught up with the hikers and hiked with them the rest of the way back. Once we got to their cars, they gave us celebratory beers and some chips. We exchanged numbers and emails with them, and told them that if they ever come down to SD, to let us know so that we could treat them to a few rounds of microbrews, or to dinner. Afterwards, Danny gave us a lift back to our car since he was headed in that direction to drop off his other buddy at the truck they had taken to the trail head. We then drove back towards SD, made a pit stop in LA for all-you-can-eat korean barbeque, and arrived back in SD around 2 am, far later that the originally planned 7 pm.

In retrospect, we did not do enough research about the ‘trails’ we were going to take. We didn’t realize that 70% of the trip would be unmarked bouldering. Also, had we not gone at the pace we were going, we would have not met up with those hikers, and we would probably still be wandering around for at least another day (there was no chance that we would have found the trail out of Sespe without the help of those hikers), or at least until our friends realized that we were still missing and sent out a rescue helicopter. It would have also been wise to bring hiking boots, as the pain caused by striking our feet against boulders (and damaging a ligament in my left foot from striking a medium sized rock too hard) and the annoyance of getting loads of pebbles and spikey plants in between our toes and in the vibrams (for the record, feeling everything with your feet is overrated). Long pants, long sleeved shirts, and hats are a good idea as we all got sunburns and hundreds of scrapes and skin punctures from the desert plants that covered the trails. Though the machete was a spur-of-the-moment/novelty item that I purchased, it turned out to be one of the most invaluable items on the trip. Also, when traveling through the trails, it’s a good idea to not have anything protruding from the packs as the branches get snagged on those things and causes more energy to be expended than necessary.

2 blisters, 2 fractured pinky toes, 16 bug bites poison oak (what I thought were bug bites is actually a bad case of contact with poison oak), hundreds of cuts and puncture wounds, multiple sunburns and $200 worth of gear destroyed later I am happy to say that I am still alive. Though I do not want to backpack through the Sespe again, I still do want to go back and see the waterfalls and the condors in a context where I’m not fighting for my life.

3 Responses to “Memorial Weekend – Sespe Creek”
  1. Anonymous says:

    you really got strong mind and body. salute to your guys!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank God we didn’t see you in the news! Yeah, I didn’t think those “toe shoes” are for hiking!
    Thankful to your Mom for sharing your stories. You’re a great storyteller Josh!

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  1. […] If you want to read more details about the first trip we took: […]

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