Updated: April 13, 2006

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Forks of the Kern

Difficulty: Class IV+ - V
Length: 14.5 miles
Flows: 1000 cfs - 3000 cfs
Gradient: 65 ft/mi
Put-in: Little Kern Confluence (Forks)
Take-out: Johnsondale Bridge
Season: Spring Runoff

The Forks of the Kern is without a doubt the best overnight rafting trip in the state of California due to its combination of great rapids and excellent scenery. A "Forks" trip begins in the Golden Trout Wilderness and travels along the beautiful Dome Land Wilderness. This is a unique trip due to the high sierra granite scenery and lush pine forests. Unfortunately, most rafters avoid this amazing run due to the two mile hike required to reach put in, undependable flows, and the necessary river permit.

River permits are required for all trips on the Forks of the Kern and limit trip size to 15. Permits for the busy season (May 15 to September 15) are offered through a lottery system. Complete information can be found on the Forest Service Forks of the Kern River Permit page.

You'll put in on the North Fork of the Kern just past its confluence with the Little Kern. This is referred to as "the Forks." Most trips will hire pack mules to carry their equipment down to the river. Contact Golden Trout Wilderness Pack Trains at (209) 539-2744 or (209) 542-2816 for mules and a wrangler.

Once on the river you'll find countless unnamed Class IV rapids scattered in between the larger Class IV+ and V drops. The first big Class IV+ rapids are Upper Freeman Creek Falls, Lower Freeman Creek Falls, Wrapid, Needlerock Falls, and Slalom which occur during the first half of the trip.

Below here is a short break from the action with several good campsites and the Class IV+ rapids Little Bean and Big Bean. You'll also pass by Durrwood Lodge which makes a nice stop. Please be sure to ask permission from the caretaker before poking around. Below here is Peppermint Falls which should be a mandatory stop for a side hike to a breath taking waterfall. The last good campground is on the right in between the rapids Little Bean and Big Bean.

Your first big test of the trip is Vortex, a Class V rapid that should be portaged below 1300 cfs when there is no good clear line. The center slot of the rapid is a big drop into a "flat reversal" that is usually avoided. Immediately following Vortex is the Gauntlet, a long, continuous rapid. The next few miles bring the Class IV+ rapids Four Mile, Rincon, Metamorphosis, and Basalt as well as the long Class V rapid Westwall.

About half of a mile past Westwall, look for Dry Meadow Creek cascading in on the right. This is a great place to stop for some lunch and recreation. If you're adventurous you'll want to try the water slide that ends by throwing your body into the air and eventually the river. Hikers and kayakers will want to make their way up granite slabs to check out the famous teacups. These are seven distinct runnable (and photogenic) waterfalls that end in granite bowls. The eighth is a sixty foot drop onto rocks.

After Dry Meadow Creek you'll enjoy the Class IV+ rapid Respect followed by the Class V rapid Carson Falls which is the biggest rapid on the river. Carson falls is an eight foot vertical drop into an interesting hole. There are some dangerous sieves and rocks here so be careful.

After Carson Falls, it's a quick float to the Johnsondale Bridge where you get to carry your boats up a hill and enjoy a cold celebration beverage. If you're not too keen on carrying boats uphill you can float down two more miles of Class IV rapids to an easier take out at Fairview Dam.

If you're interested in pictures and the perspective of an inflatable kayaker, check out cacreeks's Forks of the Kern description.

Directions

To reach Johnsondale Bridge (take-out): Get yourself to the lovely town of Bakersfield on Highway 99 in the Central Valley. In Bakersfield look for Highway 178 and take that up the Lower Kern River canyon to the town of Lake Isabella. From Lake Isabella you want to get yourself to Kernville by taking California 155 to Wofford Heights and hanging a right onto Burlando Road. Drive through the beautiful town of Kernville (stopping at "the Hut" is a favorite pastime) and take a left on Sierra Way (Mountain Road 99). You'll follow this along the Upper Kern to Johnsondale Bridge.

To reach the "the Forks" (put-in): From the Johnsondale Bridge head north on Mountain Road 99 to the town of Johnsondale where you should hang right on a paved road headed towards Lloyds Meadow. After about 15 miles hang a right on a dirt road with a sign that reads "Forks of the Kern 4." You'll drive two miles on this road to a parking lot where you should put on your hiking boots. It's a pleasant two mile hike down to the river on a well maintained trail.

Outfitters

Kern River Outfitters

Kern River Tours

Outdoor Adventures

Sequoia Outdoor Center

Whitewater Voyages

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Disclaimer: River descriptions and classifications may change due to natural events that may create new hazards or flows. C-W-R advises that any paddler that uses this site be additionally informed by seeking out local news and updates for changes on this river.

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