Paddling Time: 3-4 days Portages: Many! Rock climbing skills (and hardware) useful. Put In: Lion Campground, 5 miles east of Hwy.33 on FS Road 6N31. (Elev: 2980') google map
Take Out: Shiell's Park at Old Telegraph Rd Bridge, in Fillmore (Elev: 400') google map
Shuttle: 45 miles, 1.25 hours Average Gradient: 82 fpm
Season: Winter Topo Maps: Lion Canyon, Topatopa Mountains, Devils Heart Peak, Fillmore 7.5 min. quads Geology: Tertiary marine and non-marine sedimentary rocks, featuring the 54 million year old Sespe Formation. Oil and gas exploration began here in the 1860's, and the area's first oil wells were drilled in 1887 in Sespe Creek. Notes: Data provided by H. Charles Foster
Sespe Creek, by H. Charles Foster The helicopter came thumping up the Santa Clara River Valley, then veered left up the lower reaches of Sespe Creek. "Sure hope he's not looking for us," I said to Keith. Keith Dinger, Patrick Kruse and I had set off on our first trip down Sespe Creek three and a half days earlier. The problem was, it was only supposed to be a three day trip. We all had people worrying about us at home. Sespe Creek is legendary amongst Southern California boaters. First run by Yvonne Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Reg Lake, John Wasserman, and Jackson Frishman in May 1984, it has since been successfully navigated by only a dozen or so boaters. Several trips have been interrupted or aborted due to rising water or insufficient skills. Also, most of the years since the first descent have been drought years, leaving the canyon with insufficient water for even the most rock-tolerant kayakers. 1995 was definitely a different case, with Southern California receiving record amounts of rainfall. This wealth of precipitation made Sespe unapproachable for most of the winter. There was the added risk that, once on the run, another storm might roll in. I had been warned emphatically by Sespe veterans Richard Penny and Steve Harris to avoid this scenario, as high water could render much of the lower half of the run extremely hazardous. Keith and I, having run nearby Piru Creek in early March, were eager to experience more Southern California wilderness boating. We set a date for mid-March, only to postpone the trip as one of the coldest storms of the winter hit the state. A week later, high pressure dominated the weather pattern, triggering warm Santa Ana winds. A quick drive to Fillmore to check the gage, and a look at the extended weather forecast, and we were loading our dry bags. This new put-in date allowed Patrick to join us. Day One: The first fourteen miles are very easy. The creek goes "with the grain" of the local geology, only rarely cutting across the sedimentary rock beds. Most of this section is Class II-III with a few fun Class-IV rapids, and only a few places where willows pose a hazard. There are fine views of the Topotopa Mountains to the south. These were covered with snow during our trip, and looked like parts of the Alps. Tree life is abundant here. Cottonwoods and willows line the banks, with the occasional oak and sycamore. The north facing slopes are often crowded with pines, while the sunbaked slopes on river left are covered with impenetrable chaparral. There are many views of the interesting rock deposits, with black, white, red, grey, yellow, and green sandstone layers. Some of the beds are loaded with fossils, including oysters, clams, and marine snails. Several large landslides are encountered here. An amazing amount of earth and rock have slumped into the river due to the heavy winter rains. These sections demand vigilance as the sharp rocks form some tight but runnable rapids. Hikers may be seen on their way to or from the famous Sespe Hot Springs, which are about 1 mile up Hot Springs Canyon, at mile 13.5. We also spotted a variety of interesting river debris, including a dirt bike plastered vertically to a tree by the winter floods. Good tree-shaded campsites are numerous all along the upper half of the run due to the wide canyon bottom and low gradient. We chose one just upstream from Hot Springs Canyon. We had al@
Last spring Brian Baker and myself ran Sespe Creek over the period of 4 long days. We did this using a 10 foot SOTAR self bailing raft. The flow was less than we wanted when we put in. I would estimate it to be around 70-80 cfs at the put in and around 200 or so at the take out. We did lots of dragging in the first 6-7 miles. As the canyon grew narrower the rafting became very enjoyable allowing us to run many outstanding drops. We had planned on 3 days for our trip but portaging a raft with two people is tough work and caused us to stay on the river for a fourth day. I have run Sespe 3 times, two times by kayak, 1991 and 1996 and last year 2005 by raft. The AWA site says 1000cfs is a OK flow but 1000cfs would be very pushy in many spots. If you are planning on running this for the first time I suggest a flow between 200-500cfs and a minimum flow of 150cfs. At these lower flows the upper section might be a bit boney but the flow will pick up and you will enjoy drop after drop in the lower canyon and not feel like you are pushing the envelope. Sespe is like nothing else in California and should be on every adventure boaters to do list.
The last quarter-mile or so of Sespe before the canyon mouth is the most interesting. In this section, known as "Devil's Gate," enormous piles of boulders largely prevent boating and turn the trip into a caving adventure with kayaks. The largest free-standing boulders I have ever seen were here; they dwarf those found in Yosemite Valley. As Charles Foster puts it on his Sespe Creek page, "these are the sequoias of the boulder world."
We ran this last year in 2.5 days moving at an average to fast pace.
The portaging was strenuous but never really required complicated rope work. Most rapids went well and most (maybe all) portages were pretty short...only one drop at a time. I don't think any portage took us more than 20 minutes (lots of effort for sure but not as bad as some runs).
We found really great campsites both nights. Its a cool place for sure. But it was a lot of effort for the quality of drops. It was a one time run for me...glad I did it...don't want to do it again.
There are reports of folks running pretty much everything.
Gauge is visible across the river from the end of Goodenough Road, north of Fillmore. (Take binoculars for a clear view of the gage). Look for 5.4 - 6.4 feet. (The flow range is estimated at 400-1000 cfs, with 800 cfs regarded as optimum).
Kevin Mokracek recommends lower flows of 200 to 500 cfs for average boaters. See his full note in the comments section. Willingness to boat low flows certainly expands the boatable window. The trade offs are; very shallow & boney in the upper sections, but easier to deal with portages and and critical moves in the serious sections.
Since the early parts of the run are wide and easy, Jstoez recommends catching high flows of 1000 cfs at the beginning and hope that it drops to around 300 by the end. The steep sections in the second half of the run are easier at lower flows so boating is easier with high flows at the beginning and low flows towards the end.
Sespe Creek near Wheeler Springs Upstream of the put in.
NOAA Sespe forcast
Photo of Fillmore gauge site at high water
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