Sespe Creek near Santa Barbara


Stretch: near Highway 33 bridge almost to the Santa Clara River
Difficulty: Class V with many portages, harder at higher flows
Distance: 33.1 miles, 3 to 4 days, fair weather only
Flows: kayaks 400 - 800 cfs at take-out
Gauge: 7.0 - 8.0' on Grand Rd. stick gauge near take-out
Gradient: 122 fpm average, gorge contains 190 fpm in one place
Put-in: Lion Campground off highway 33 north of Ojai, 2980'
Take-out: highway 126 bridge west of Fillmore, 400'
Shuttle: 45 miles (over 1 hour) one-way, 5 miles on dirt
Maps: USFS Los Padres NF, AAA San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield
Season: winter and spring, from recent rain and snowmelt
Agency: USFS, private
Notes: © 1998 Preston Holmes,

This run starts with easy gradient and becomes an expert run where it turns south and cuts thru the Sespe rock formation. The wilderness is as deep or deeper than anything encountered in the Sierra, so make sure to bring extra food and adequate first aid supplies.

In dry years, the ideal flow window comes very early, but in wet (El Niño) years, good flows could last into May. Low flows are reported to be easier, so do not start this adventure when rainy weather is predicted.

Kevin Moracek sent this description and the following photos:

I have kayaked Sespe Creek twice: once in 1991 and again in 1996. I have always wanted to try rafting it.

On April 13-16th 2005, Brian Baker and I ran what is most likely the first complete raft descent of Sespe Creek. We used a 10' SOTAR during our self-supported trip. Flow was about 100 cfs at the put-in and 400 cfs at the take-out. More water would have been welcome, but not much more, especially down in the canyon where there are some must-catch eddies. Toward the end of the run is a seemingly endless portage around, over and under giant house sized boulders. It was a major undertaking with a raft but well worth the work. The Sespe ranks right up there with any river in the Sierras in both difficulty and beauty.

Sespe River near Santa Barbara CA Sespe River near Santa Barbara CA
12' SOTAR near put-in The canyon steepens

Sespe River near Santa Barbara CA
Eddy above a scout
Sespe River near Santa Barbara CA
Camp in the deep canyon
Sespe River near Santa Barbara CA
After the portage

For more photos and a day-by-day guide, see Sespe Creek by Preston Holmes.


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