Quest for The Storyteller's Hot Springs

by Brooke Wright

It’s a bad sign when you’re on the trail, headed home, and the conversation goes something like this:

“I think he said it was about two hours in, right? I always pictured it on the left and the waterfall just down a little further, but I’m not sure why. What do you remember?”

“Yeah, two hours, but was that from the trailhead or from when we hit the river? It was near where the other gorge comes into the Arroyo Seco Creek, right? He said it was hard to find …”

It’s what happens when you are too lazy to listen to an enthusiastic storyteller and instead tell yourself, “My partner looks like he’s paying attention, so I’m sure he’ll remember.”

That was a year ago, when we were enjoying the swimming hole near Indians Campground in the Ventana Wilderness, which is about 18 miles up the Arroyo Seco River from the better-known Arroyo Seco Campground. The storyteller was full of detailed information, but we were jumping off rocks and swinging on rope swings and had that hazy mindset that comes with happiness and exhaustion. (Or perhaps it’s just unreasonable to think you’ll remember anything a year later in this information-intensive world.)

Read Blundering Into Desolation
Read Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail Report

But we decided to go for it anyway. The storyteller had travelled the full 18 miles to Arroyo Seco Campground by hiking and rock-hopping the first few miles from Escondido Campground before inflating his inner tube and floating for four days, fishing, swimming and exploring along the way. The first night, he said, he stayed near a beautiful waterfall only to discover that nearby there was far more beautiful camping and hot springs. And that is what we aimed to find one year later.

Ventana River Trek
With that in mind, we lined our backpacks with two heavy-duty garbage bags that were tightly sealed at the top and headed down the 1.2-mile trail toward the river in blazing heat. After spending a night at the nearby Indians Campground, we welcomed a change of scenery since the black fly population was too healthy for comfort.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered it was just as healthy along the river. Swatting flies while hopping over rocks and dodging the tentacles of menacing poison oak, I thought of a song the local band Frootie Flavors came out with last year: “I like nature, but don’t get it on me.”

Nature is great, right? What a relief to leave the concrete world and sounds of trains and cars for the buzz of insects and hum of rushing water. But what a nightmare when that buzz is crawling in your ear or the scenery is making your skin blister and your very bones itch for weeks on end. The Ventana Wilderness, beautiful as it is, needs to be caught seasonally. It’s worth it to figure out that sweet spot when the heat is not too intense and the water is a little warm but the plants haven’t lost their leaves yet.

Swatting flies became a meditation along with rock-hopping: hop, swat, walk, adjust pack, swat, hop, walk, adjust. Few words passed between us during those hours of focused intention. Occasionally the scent of sulphur would give us pause and we’d hike up the sides of the river or dig through some suspiciously slate-colored sand that just seemed like hot springs sand.

Flies and poison oak aside, the adventure was in navigating when and how to cross deeper waters and large boulders. As a hypersensitive poison oak victim, I stayed in the water while my hiking partner found his way around and along makeshift trails.

After about four hours of this (if you include a swim break at one of the beautiful swimming holes along the way), one of Michael’s journeys along the borders of the river landed us a wide swath of campsite above the river, under some oak trees. The flies swarmed as soon as we slowed down. Putting our bags down, we travelled along the river a bit further, just in case the hot springs were around the corner, only to discover the river opened up and trails ended. We had reached the end of rock-hopping. This is where an inner tube would have been essential and, according to our storyteller, this must be where the journey becomes more of a float and less of a hike for days ahead.

It’s disappointing to say I never found the secret hot springs, but then again, they wouldn’t be as secret if I had. I did, however, find the waterfall and enjoyed a quick bath in its idyllic fresh water.

The climb back was brutal the next day, although uphill rock-hopping was easier on the joints and mind without having to worry about the impact of gravity. The heat weighed down and threatened to flatten me halfway up the canyon. At this point I had snorted two flies and my partner had eaten one. Nonetheless, it was an adventure worth having that ended with us having the not-so-secret swimming hole near Indians all to ourselves.

A note re: hot springs: It isn’t a surprise to hear of hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness: Tassajara Hot Springs and the notoriously overused Sykes Hot Springs are in the same wilderness area. The San Andreas fault (responsible for the 1906 earthquake) passes right under this region, so springs could form (and disappear) anywhere in this area. Check for an explanation, but it is entirely feasible the storyteller’s spring was but is no màs. So, my fellow hot springs seekers, if you get a red hot tip on a secret hot spring, heed Janis Joplin’s advice: get it while you can!

Getting there: As of today, Google Maps does not recognize “Indians campground” or how to drive there. However, I put “Indians Road, Big Sur, CA” and got the correct directions:

Approximate distance from Santa Cruz: 110 miles
Take CA-1 south to Salinas Road. Take the overpass back over the freeway.
Take a slight right on Werner Road. Turn right on Hall, then turn right on San Miguel Canyon Road. Exit south on Hwy 101.
Take 101 south for 53 miles
Exit Jolon Road
Turn right onto Mission and into Fort Hunter Liggett
Follow signs for Indians Campground and Del Venturi Road.

Unless there has been a heavy rain, the road should be open. Travel for a few miles on a paved road, quickly transitioning into the mountains and out of the mock war zone of the active military base. The first campground (Indians) is on your right when the paved road ends. Cabins are on your left and the dirt road makes a turn up the hill on your right. You can continue up the road for about 3.5 miles to the Escondido Campground, where the downriver trailhead is. On that dirt road, you will pass the trail for the Indians swimming hole on your left (easy to walk to from Indians Campground).

The road ends at Escondido campground, or more accurately, it is closed “indefinitely” between Escondido and Arroyo Seco campground. The camping is free at both locations.


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I found the hot spring Brooke Wright was looking for. Arrived mid-afternoon of the first day. Very nice, perfect temperature. Since it's one of the secret hot springs in Ventana Wilderness, I don't think I should put the directions to it on this blog. I might be willing to trade one of my secret hot springs for one of yours. Dick Graybill