Sespe Hot Springs - McDonald Cabin Loop

Sespe Wilderness Area of Los Padres National Forest


Highlights: The Sespe Hot Springs - McDonald Cabin Loop is a very strenuous 27-mile backpack that vists the hottest natural spring in southern California, a sandstone cave with Chumash Indian pictographs, and an old miners cabin in the heart of the Sespe Wilderness area.

Directions: The drive takes about 1 hours from Bakersfield.

  • Head south on I-5, and take the Frazier Park exit before reaching Tejon Pass.
  • Continue west (towards Mt. Pinos) for 7 miles on Frazier Mountain Road and turn left (south) on Lockwood Valley Road.
  • Drive past the Chuchupate (Lockwood Valley) Ranger Station, and past Boy Scout Road (entrance to Camp Three Falls). If needed, you can obtain an Adventure Pass and fire permit at the Ranger Station.
  • About 8 miles from the freeway, turn left (south) off Lockwood Valley Road onto Road 7N03.
  • Road 7N03 starts out paved and deteriorates into dirt. There are rough spots, but most cars should have no problem. Stay on the main road, ignoring side roads, for 7 miles and two creek crossings until a Y junction is reached. Take the left-hand road, which crosses the creek and heads towards Half Moon Campground and Mutau Flat.
  • About 5 miles later, go right at a junction towards Johnson Ridge/Mutau Flat. (The left-hand road leads to Half Moon campground).
  • Take the road on the right, which leads 1 miles to a third junction. Go left to a small parking area at the trail head. Do not go to the right, as it leads to a locked gate.

Trailhead: The hike begins at the parking area above Mutau Flat.

  • DAY 1 - Pack downhill from the parking lot mile to a trail junction. Take the Johnson Ridge trail on the right (south), which crosses the sandy wash of Mutau Creek and climbs into pine forest. A junction with the Little Mutau Creek trail is reached at 2 miles. Take the trail on the right (south), which continues down Johnson Ridge to the floor of Hot Springs Canyon at 8 miles. The best camps are in or near some conspicuous palm trees, where there are warm-water pools to soak in. More austere sites are upstream 0.3 miles, at the source of the scalding springs.
  • DAY 2 - Hike downstream mile, passing a brick outhouse, to a junction with Sespe Creek trail. Go left (east), following Sespe Creek downstream. Cross the creek to the south side, then negotiate a tricky crossing of a tributary stream. Eventually, recross Sespe Creek to the north side where a trail junction is reached. Take the left trail (northeast), which leaves Sespe Creek and ascends a steep hill, before an even steeper drop down to Alder Creek Camp at 5 miles. About mile past this camp, there is a signed trail junction. Bushwack a short distance down the path on the left (north) that leads to the head of a gorge. DO NOT GO UP THE GORGE, as it contains dangerous cliffs. Instead take a path on the right (east) that switchbacks over a small but steep hill. The trail then drops to a dry creek crossing, skirts the head of the aforementioned gorge, and follows grassy gullies to another small but steep hill to the northwest. The path through this stretch is hard to follow, and map and compass are strongly recommended. From the hilltop, a good trail drops to Alder Creek at 6 miles, but deteriorates rapidly as it heads upstream, crossing and recrossing the creek. The Indian Cave campsite is reached when the gorge opens out at a flat area with a large oak tree at 7 miles. The cave sits 20 feet above the creek, a few yards downstream from the campsite.
  • DAY 3 - Head upstream 1 miles on difficult to follow trail to the junction of Sycamore Canyon and Alder Creek. The trail briefly heads up Sycamore Canyon, then up and along the divide on the right, and finally down to a bushwack across a long stretch of badly overgrown trail that leads back to Alder Creek. McDonald Cabin is at the end of Alder Creek, about 3 miles from the Indian Cave. A steep strenuous climb now switchbacks to the west 2 miles with 2,000 ft of elevation gain to a saddle, which at 6100 ft is the high point of the trek. The route then drops down to a trail junction and follows the left trail, which continues downhill to Little Mutau Creek Campsite at 8 miles.
  • Day 4 - Continue down creek, then up a steep hill, and over a ridge to a long downhill, which leads back towards Mutau Flat. About 2 miles from Little Mutau, the 2nd junction of Day 1 is reached. From here, retrace the trail from Day 1 another 2 miles back to the car.

Maps: The 7-minute topographic quadrangles needed are Lockwood Valley, Topatopa Mountain, Devils Heart Peak Peak, and Alamo Mountain.


  • The trail is very difficult to follow in places, and map and compass are essential. Note that the Indian Cave is not marked on any topo, and can only be found by stumbling onto the campsite along Alder Creek.
  • A National Forest Service fire permit (free) and Adventure Pass ($5.00/day) are required. These can be obtained at the Chuchupate (Lockwood Valley) Ranger Station (661-245-3731) mentioned above. Big 5 Sporting Goods also sells Adventure Passes.
  • Giardia is a concern and a water purifier is needed.
  • Beware of ticks on poorly maintained trails that require bushwacking.
  • There is no water between McDonald cabin and Little Mutau campsite.
  • Be sure to hang your food, as bears have been known to visit campsites along Alder and Sespe Creeks.

More Attractions:

  • The conspicuous upright rocks in the middle of Mutau Flat (private property) are a sacred site to the Chumash Indians. The flat itself is named after a French-Canadian renegade of the 1860s named Will Mutah, who used the flat to move stolen horses between the San Joaquin and Santa Clara Valleys.
  • Mutau Creek is said to have once flowed from east to west, but today flows west to east. The change may have been the result of the 1856 Tejon Earthquake, which had its epicenter close by and was almost as big as the 1906 San Francisco Quake.
  • Look for the unusual perched terraces in the canyon on the east side of Johnson Ridge, when hiking down to the Hot Springs. These are peneplains created when rapid uplift of the Topatopa Mountains resulted in equally rapid downcutting of the creek to leave an ancient meadow high and dry.
  • Sespe Hot Springs at 190°F is the hottest natural spring in Southern California, and is home to a herd of Bighorn Sheep. Apparently, followers of Charles Manson murdered a lawyer here in 1970, eight days after Manson was convicted of killing actress Sharon Tate.
  • Three Indian mortar holes are on a boulder hidden at the top of the dangerous gorge mentioned on Day 2 of this trek. Do not attempt to go up this gorge from below. Instead look for the mortars by going 30 yards off the trail when above the gorge.
  • The pictographs at Indian Cave were painted by Chumash Indians. This is a protected archaelogical site. Treat it with care and respect!
  • McDonald Cabin is an old stone-walled miners cabin similar to cabins associated with "gold diggings" along Piru Creek.


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