Snow melt from Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, feeds the Kern River as it flows south then west out of the southern Sierra Nevada into the vast farmlands and oil fields of the San Joaquin Valley. In recognition of their outstanding scenic, recreational, and ecological values, the North and South Forks of the Kern River were added by Congress to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System in 1987. But the lower Kern River, below Isabella dam and reservoir, remains unprotected.
Motorists driving east from Bakersfield on Hwy 178 are pleasantly surprised as they leave the hot and dry valley, to enter the rugged and water-filled Kern River canyon. Here, the 32 mile-long river has carved its way through solid rock, forming numerous cascades and dividing its flow around huge boulders.
As you progress upstream, the river-side vegetation becomes dominated by large sycamore and cottonwood trees, and the yucca and cactus studded canyon slopes give way to seasonal grassland, live and blue oaks, and foothill pine. The lower Kern River supports one of the richest riparian forests in the Sierra foothills, providing important habitat for neotropical songbirds, as well as California spotted owl, bald eagle, and osprey. The threatened Kern Canyon salamander also utilizes this river-side habitat.
But the lower Kern is probably best known for its incredible whitewater rapids. The river offers a wide range of class III-V whitewater for kayakers and rafters, with some portages required around class VI waterfalls. Commercial and private boaters alike enjoy the rugged canyon scenery, lush riparian habitat, and challenging rapids. Its proximity to Southern California metropolitan areas make the Kern a favorite summer destination for thousands of boaters.
The lower canyon also attacts many people who visit the river to escape the valley heat. One developed campground and several picnic sites offer access to the river for campers, anglers, and picnickers. Several river-side hot springs also offer prime destinations. Visitors seeking a recreational experience along the lower Kern should exercise caution, particularly during higher flows in the spring and early summer. Many unwary and inexperienced swimmers have drowned in the river, giving it a grim nickname - the "Killer Kern."
Flows in the lower Kern are largely dependent on releases from the upstream Isabella dam. In addition, some segments of the lower Kern are also diverted to generate power in three hydroelectric facilities operated by Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. Nevertheless, the entire 32 miles of the lower Kern from Isabella dam to its canyon mouth are considered free flowing by the Forest Service and eligible for National Wild & Scenic River status.
How To Get There
From Hwy 99 in the City of Bakersfield, drive 15 miles east on Hwy 178 to the mouth of the lower Kern Canyon and the boundary of the Sequoia National Forest. Proceed slowly up the winding canyon highway to various recreation sites and river access points.
Recreation And Visitor Information
For maps and additional recreational information, contact the Forest Service's Sequoia National Forest office at 900 W. Grand Avenue, Porterville, CA 93257, phone: (559) 784-1500.