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Hikers make the long trek to soak in remote Los Padres hot spots
Springs lure the adventurous

Ventura County Star, January 7, 2008

Zeke Barlow

It starts thousands of feet deep in the Earth, where there is no light — only rock, heat and water.

There, magma-heated water slowly seeps up through fissures and cracks, picking up minerals along the way, speckling the liquid like sequins.

Up and up it travels until, finally, daylight. It empties into creeks and basins, sometimes creating nothing more than a warm mud puddle, other times an inviting pool of steaming water.

And a hot spring is born.

The little oases of hot water dot the maps of Los Padres National Forest, beckoning the adventuresome to take a soak in Mother Nature's Jacuzzi, where the only price of admission is the sweat that it took to get to the remote locations. This may be the best time of year to experience them, when the weather is cool enough for a long hike and the water, not the air, reaches 100 degrees.

"During the winter is the best time," said Stephen Karl, a CSU Fullerton staff member who ran a popular hot springs Web page on the school's Web site. He eventually had to take it down because it was drawing more traffic than the one associated with his day job.

Karl got into hunting for hot springs because they were like little treasures on the map, places to aim for after a day of romping through the woods.

But like anything that's considered a rare commodity, those who know about them would just as soon others didn't.

"You don't want to get it overcrowded," said Bill Slaughter, an Ojai resident who has been to the Sespe hot springs scores of times over the years. Some soakers will tell only close friends about secret spots, making them vow not to tell others.

The Sespe may be the best known of the roughly half a dozen hot springs in Ventura County. Some are on private property, while others, like the Sespe, are open to the public — or at least to those who can get to them. The Sespe hot springs have three access points — the easiest one a seven-mile hike and the hardest an 18-mile slog that can take two days.

Some roads once maintained

It wasn't always that way. In the 1960s, the Navy's Seabees maintained some roads in the national forest, including one that went to the hot springs. Some say they once saw a stretch limousine driving down the well-maintained road. But when the area became a designated wilderness, the road maintenance stopped and the long hike to the springs began.

Tim Hagel first went to the hot springs in the back of an old Volkswagen Baja Beetle in 1972 and has been hooked ever since. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department captain took his son on his first backpacking trip there and makes a point of taking a soak once a year.

"I absolutely love the hot springs," he said. "You can sit there and look at this 360-degree view of the wilderness, looking straight up these cliffs where the bighorn sheep come down for salt."

As part of the department's search-and-rescue unit, he's always scanning the forest from the helicopter for other hot springs rumored to be in the area, although he's yet to find them. But he has found plenty of people who tried to hike to the hot springs in the middle of summer and got dehydrated.

West of the Sespe is Rod Thompson's favorite place to soak, Willett hot springs. The locale got its name from Jaklin Willett, a homesteader who developed the property in the 1890s after he found that the warm water in the creek alleviated his arthritic pains.

Since then, someone has put in a large plastic tub for the 100-plus-degree water to flow into for those who make the 10-mile hike in.

The springs are a great place "to get away from people" and enjoy one of nature's little treats, he said.

Ojai resident Alasdair Coyne said that when he soaks in the Sespe hot springs, it feels as though all the toxins are leached from his body.

"It's a very healing thing," he said.

But not all hot springs have water that leaves your skin feeling silky smooth or gives the feeling of curing what ails you. Karl said some springs have such high levels of toxins or microbes that they can cause serious infections.

Wheeler Hot Springs, developed hot springs near Ojai, was closed in the 1990s because of health problems — it was impossible to chlorinate the water and meet health standards.

And not all hot springs are these wonderful Jacuzzis under the stars.

"While it sounds glamorous, when you get there, most people are disappointed by the hot springs," he said. "Most are just little mudholes."

Of the 300 hot springs around California, he estimates that only about 5 percent of them are what people think of as pristine pools. Most of the others are mere mudholes or little seeps in rocks too tiny to soak in.

But those that are deep enough are sacred spots to many.

Still no easy trip

One of the more accessible ones on public property is Big Caliente hot springs above Santa Barbara. And it's still no easy trip. Dave attempted the hourlong trip down the twisted, rutted dirt roads to Big Caliente three times before he found it. Like the six others who were soaking in the pool on a recent weekend, he didn't want to give his full name, for fear of being "that guy" who told everyone about this remote wonderland.

He grew up in Oregon, where his dad took him to the many hot springs because he believed in the waters' healing power. Dave just knew that the water made his skin feel like a baby's and that the view was great.

With a fingernail moon rising over the palm trees that line the hot springs, the six strangers soaked in the water that steamed up around them. And, for the moment, that was all that mattered in the world.