Condor Call: Sespe-Mutau-Fishbowls Loop

The most recent issue of the Sierra Club’s “Condor Call” newsletter carries an article penned by yours truly and Bryan Conant. See below for the content, and the link here for the full pdf of the newsletter.

Top-shelf Backcountry Treks
by Craig R. Carey and Bryan Conant

As part of this year’s Wilderness Basics Course, the Los Padres Chapter invited local cartographer (and Condor Trail director and LPFA executive director) Bryan Conant and local trail guide author Craig R. Carey to discuss their favorite backpacking routes in our local Los Padres backcountry.

It was a raucous and entertaining evening in Ventura as the two wanderers of the backwood tag-teamed a fast-paced presentation detailing their “Sweet Six” routes.

The trips presented were grouped into three categories: the quick overnighter or kid-friendly trips, three-day backpacks, and “epic” week-long backcountry treks into seldom-visited stretches of the wilderness.

Both week-long treks are deep in wilderness and for part of their routes follow the proposed Condor Trail. One of them, the Sespe-Mutau-Fishbowls Loop, is a great option for ambitious backcountry souls in the form of a ~40-mile loop through the Sespe Wilderness, and is ideal for those who enjoy a good backcountry soak.

Sespe-Mutau-Fishbowls Loop

The first day leads from the Piedra Blanca trailhead eastward along the Sespe River Trail, an easy 10 miles along the abandoned road to Willett Springs (with plenty of opportunities for swimming and wading en route). Take advantage of the hot springs a half-mile above camp and – if it’s available – enjoy the appointments of the old Lagomarsino cabin, one of the few remaining structures of what was once a large collection of buildings in an inholding here.

Willett Camp

Willet cabin
Lagomarsino Cabin, Spring 2014. Image courtesy Eldon M. Walker.

The Return

Continuing along the Sespe the next day and then a mile up Hot Springs Canyon to Sespe Hot Springs, reputed to be the hottest in Southern California. Several guerrilla camps can be found along the canyon, but our personal favorite is beneath the fire-scarred palm trees. (Camping in this canyon is all about cold water access.)

Cactus Clowning

Day 3 you’ll double-back to the Johnston Ridge trail, a former motorcycle route, and ascend a steady six miles to Mutau Flat, where things will level out and the old roads will lead you to the Half Moon car camp. When Grade Valley Road is closed in the Winter and Spring, you’ll likely have this beautiful pine-dotted campground all to yourself.

Mount Up!

Johnston/Mutau Crossing

Piru Creek

047 -- HalfMoon Campground
Half Moon Campground, Spring 2010. Image Courtesy Duane in LA.

Day 4 sees you continue west — first along the Forest Road and then along the Fishbowls trail — to the unique Fishbowls formation and trail camp. As this is your last night on the trail, enjoy it by soaking in the sandstone pools situated beneath towering conifers.

First Bowl

Day 5 you’ll climb to the Cedar/Pine Mountain Lodge connector trail, climb up and over the saddle into Pine Mountain Lodge camp (an ideal lunch spot), and then descend a toe-pounding six-miles along Piedra Blanca Creek back to your vehicle(s).

First Water for Miles

A large panorama of Piedra Blanca, Los Padres National Forest
Image courtesy Trail Trekker.

Other recommended routes will appear in future “Soaring” columns.

To the hills!

Craig R. Carey is a frequent wanderer of the Los Padres backcountry, LPFA Volunteer Wilderness Ranger, active Scouter, and author of Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura (Wilderness Press, 2012). You can read his idle musings at

Bryan Conant is a backcountry cartographer (, VWR, Executive Director of the Los Padres Forest Association, and Director of the Condor Trail Association at


2 responses to “Condor Call: Sespe-Mutau-Fishbowls Loop”

  1. I thought this was one of the overnighter routes!

    j/k… it’s a great walk at whatever pace you choose.

    1. It’s 4 overnighters, all in a row. 😉

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