Tar Creek in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (Currently closed)

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NOTE: This trail is currently closed. For more information on the trail closure, click here. Check back for updates.

Descending toward Tar Creek, Los Padres National Forest
Tar Creek, Los Padres National Forest
Tar Creek, Los Padres National Forest

Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved.  Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability.  All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here.   Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Tar Creek in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary

  • Location: North of Fillmore.  From I-5 in Valencia, take route 126 for 19.5 miles to Fillmore.  Take a right on A Street and head north for 1.1 miles to Goodenough Road.  Turn right and head 2.7 miles (Goodenough dead-ends) and take a right on Squaw Flat, a one-lane road that heads up into the mountains.  Squaw Flat is dirt in some places but should be passable for almost all vehicles.  The road is narrow, so be careful.  At 3 miles, pass the Oak Flat ranger station and continue.  A few other roads branch off, but the main route should be obvious.  A little over a mile past Oak Flat, take a right at an intersection signed with the number 9 (the left branch may be closed off with a fence), drive a quarter mile and park on the left side of the road in a large turnout.  The trail leads northwest from the parking lot, past a fallen metal gate.  From Thousand Oaks, take highway 23 north to Fillmore, where it becomes A street and continue up to Goodenough Road.
  • Agency:  Los Padres National Forest, Ojai Ranger District (Phone:805-683-6711)
  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Best season:  September – May
  • USGS topo map: Fillmore
  • Recommended gear: sun hat
  • More information: here; trip reports here and here
  • Rating: 8

In the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, it may seem hard to believe that you’re only an hour’s drive from the San Fernando Valley.   This remote area, where Tar and Sespe Creeks meet,  features deep canyons and gorges, tall mountains and interesting geology.

From the parking area, head briefly uphill to the top of a ridge, and then begin a long descent into the canyon.  On the right, in the distance, notice the sandstone formations on the hills.  At about a mile and a half in, the trail takes a sharp right turn.  Tar Creek becomes visible at this point.  There are a few parts on the trail where it has been washed out, so be careful as you make your descent (when in doubt, stick as close to the rock wall on the right as possible.  There is a chance that you will need to use your hands).

Finally, you reach Tar Creek, which may or may not be flowing depending on the time of the year.  Even if there is no water, this is a nice spot to relax and have a picnic, with views of the valley below and the hills above.

Beyond Tar Creek, the trail continues, eventually reaching Sespe Creek in three more miles, but the going is very tough.  Parts of the trail are overgrown and washed out, so if you decide to continue, know what you’re getting yourself into.  The scenery gets even better though, so if you enjoyed the hike to Tar Creek and you have the time and energy, bushwhack your way farther.  Whatever distance you travel in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, it’s hard not to enjoy it and want to come back for more.


  1. Hi there, I want to do this hike this weekend, but I want to make sure there’s water there. Do you have any idea if it would definitely be dried up at this time of year. It looks like you went on the exact same weekend in 2010 — was there water? It was a wet winter, but this is pretty late in the season so I’m uncertain.

    I would call the Los Padres Ojai Ranger District to ask, but apparently this site is technically closed to the public because it’s in the condor sanctuary. I don’t want to let them know we’ll be coming.

    Any help would be appreciated!

    1. Thanks for reading. I can’t say what the water level in the creek will be like, but the whole area is very attractive and isolated and peaceful, and well worth exploring. Be careful though!

  2. Hi, First of all, this was very helpful! Second, do you know of any campgrounds near this place? Trying to see if I can set up camp this coming Friday Dec. 9, 2011. Thanks for your time!

    1. Thanks for reading. I don’t know offhand about campgrounds nearby, but you might want to check out the Los Padres National Forest homepage, here.


  3. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been back in lower sespe, someone Was telling me something like you can’t go back ther anymore and aren’t allowed to fish???? I would really love to do a little fly fishing possible backpack adventure there but dont want to be breaking any laws…. Even though I practice catch and release. Thanks

    1. I’m not sure about that, you can probably check with the ranger station. Thanks for reading and happy hiking/fishing.

  4. Did this hike yesterday, May 19, 2012. This year we had less than 1/2 average rainfall, so I was worried that at this relatively late point in the season the creek would be dry. Thankfully, there was still plenty of water and we had a great time sliding down the top falls and jumping off the middle falls (which were a little shallow; I scraped the river bottom).

    A couple of important things to note. 1. The trail takes you to the top of the swimming hole formation, then you have to scramble down a significant pitch of loose dirt and do some bouldering. I saw plenty of boyscouts handling it, so no big deal, but there were some people who weren’t up for the scramble and therefore couldn’t actually reach the pools. 2. We are fairly fit, experienced hikers and the trail took us about 2 hours each way.

  5. USFS has just closed Tar Creek and say they are stricly enforcing closure of Tar Creek:

    Forest Service Law Enforcement Strictly
    Enforcing Condor Sanctuary Closure Order

    GOLETA, CA, April 1, 2015…Los Padres National Forest officials announced that federal law enforcement officers are enforcing the closure order prohibiting public entry in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary except on designated travel corridors to allow recreation travel through the Sanctuary. Violators are subject to a penalty of $5,000 and/or six months in jail.

    The Sespe Condor Sanctuary provides critical habitat and wildlife refuge for the endangered California condor. The Forest Service established the Sanctuary in 1947 and expanded it in 1951 to its current size of 53,000 acres. In 1967 the condor was first recognized as “endangered,” and in 1972 received legal protection under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty with Mexico that was amended to include vultures and other families of birds. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 directed federal agencies to protect habitat and institute recovery plans.

    “The Tar Creek area is closed and we are working with our partners and volunteers to share that message with the public,” said Ojai District Ranger Sue Exline. “It is important we convey this, and let people know why it is so important that we protect this vital habitat.”

    The Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act of 1993 established the Sespe Wilderness, which encompasses the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Survey data demonstrates the California condors heavily use the Sanctuary to breed, nest, roost and forage. Human interaction with the condors remains a concern, exposing the birds to contamination and increasing the likelihood of their associating food and microtrash with humans and potentially reducing their reliance on natural foraging.

    Adjacent to the Sanctuary and also closed to public entry for the protection of the condor is the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.


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