The Kern River area is a whitewater wonderland. The river and its tributaries offer some of the most varied, challenging and aesthetic whitewater boating in the world!
The North Fork features the premier expert wilderness run, The Forks, and over 20 miles of easily accessible, roadside boating. The Lower Kern has dependable summer flows, warm water, and exhilarating rapids. The Kern Below Democrat (Cataracts of the Kern) has awesome class IV, V, and V+ whitewater (Class I being very easy, and Class V or higher being very difficult) that even the most experienced boater will find challenging.
Like steep creeks? Brush Creek is one of the best, and Dry Meadow Creek even steeper, more difficult, and amazing!
Wild & Scenic North Fork Kern River
The origin of the North Fork Kern River is in a cirque of High Sierra peaks that includes the highest peak in California and the continental U.S., Mt. Whitney (14,494 ft.), the second highest peak in California, Mt.Williamson (14,375 ft.), as well as several other thirteen-thousand and fourteen-thousand-foot peaks.
The high drainage (usually) protects the snowpack from warm spells that characterize Sierra winters, and in normal years assure adequate flows from February or March, to sometime in July when the boating focus shifts to the dam-controlled Lower Kern.
The boating season on the popular 16-mile section of river between the Limestone Run takeout and the Powerhouse Run put-in is significantly shortened by the diversion of 600+ CFS of water at Southern California Edison’s Fairview diversion dam.
The North Fork is boatable from Junction Meadow (just west of Mt. Whitney) to Lake Isabella, providing more than 70 miles of superb class III to VI whitewater.
When’s the last time you carried your boat over a 13,777 ft. pass, hiked 21 miles, and climbed the highest peak in the continental U.S. on the way to a put-in? What? You don’t wander far from your hot tub?
Rarely done, this classic 37 mile, class V-VI, wilderness run starts at 8000 ft. in the High Sierra, and ends at the put-in for the Forks run at 4660 ft!
If you’re into hiking with your boat, you can get a glimpse of what this run is like by hiking up the river trail from the Forks put-in. Other approaches are also possible.
What El Capitan is to Yosemite, the Forks is to Kern area whitewater. In the guidebook California Whitewater, Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun describe the Forks of the Kern as “one of the finest stretches of expert whitewater on earth.”
Every aspect of the Forks run is superlative. The rapids are varied, technical and challenging. Even very accomplished boaters find the rapids interesting. The scenery is resplendent. The uniquely sculptured pinnacles of the Needles tower above. Pine and cedar forests alternate with lichen-covered rocks and cliffs. Much of the streambed is granitic, and in several places, massive white granite slabs border the river. Several side creeks tumble down the precipitous canyon walls, many ending in spectacular waterfalls.
Some of the more difficult rapids include:
Lower Freeman – Successfully catching a willow filled eddy on river right makes a ferry left around a hole (with a recirculating eddy) more manageable. Scout on the right, carry on the left.
Needlerock Falls – The “standard” river right line is deceptive. Many kayaks squirt, flip, or do other strange things here. Alternate routes exist but are rockier and more technical. Scout on either side, portage on river left.
Big Bean – Some prefer a river left eddy and ferry around a big hole. Some boaters boof the hole at lower flows, or punch it at moderate flows. Others work out a more technical line down the right side. Scout and carry on the right. Some boaters work down to an eddy on river left, just above the main drop, and scout or do a short carry around the ledge.
Vortex – Paddlers on the Forks in 2008 have reported that the rapid Vortex has changed. It looks like the big boulder on the right bracketing the drop into the infamous Vortex hole has shifted, and the Slide Rock has tipped up and to the river right. It appears that the chute/slide described in the guidebook is no longer an option. There is a nasty ledge hole that immediately follows the main drop and hole. The entire river right side is somewhat sievey. Scout on the right, short carry on the left, if you don’t mind the ferry above the infamous Vortex hole. Otherwise, carry right. Scout and see what you think!
The Gauntlet – This rapid is actually comprised of several drops, that become less discrete at higher flows. Because it is very long, it is difficult to scout or portage. This is one of those rapids that there is divided opinion over the “best” line. There are many variations but most of the controversy centers around whether you end on the left, or right. The question, “Which side has the stickier hole?”
Chaos & Confusion – Many boaters divide the Westwall section into two distinctly different rapids, Chaos, and Confusion. Chaos is a series of about three drops, with holes of varying difficulty. At certain levels a couple of these holes are pretty sticky and spectacular tailstands can result. The Chaos section ends at a fairly large eddy on river left. From here you can carry or scout the more difficult rapid Confusion.
The issue on Confusion is an undercut rock formation known as the “Whale’s Tail” that sits squarely in the middle of the channel (and current) just at the final drop. You really want to be in control here, and the rapid is dedicated to being sure that you’re not. Some boaters like to go right of the Tail, but a majority seem to prefer to go left. Check it out and see what you think!
Carson Falls – An impressive and intimidating rapid. Nearly all boaters that run it prefer a line on the river right at moderate flows, and try to ride a shoulder or rib of rock to a point where they can drop onto a pillow in the main current. Be wary of a “cheat route” on the left, a fatality has occurred here.
Expert kayakers, with a creekin’ bent, have done the Forks at 300 CFS and lower. At high flows, the entire stretch has been run in under three hours! On May 6, 2000, Rocky Contos and Preston Holmes put-in at the Forks and paddled all the way to the Park in seven hours!
Johnsondale Bridge marks the beginning of the river segment that boaters generally refer to as the “Upper Kern.” Exciting rapids and beautiful scenery combine to make this run a favorite among rafters and kayakers.
The difficulty, and consequences of a swim, on the Limestone run, varies dramatically with the flow, particularly on the rapids Limestone and Joe’s Diner. At higher flows, large holes develop in these rapids. Below about 1500 CFS many boaters consider the run to be about class III+ or IV-. In the 1500-2500 range, it’s about class IV, increasing to IV+ above about 2500 CFS. At moderate flows, a demanding class III run (significantly harder than the Powerhouse Run) can be done by putting in belowJoe’s Diner.
The take-out is approximately 1/2 mile upstream of Fairview Dam.
Depending on the water level and other factors, this is one of the runs our associated outfitters may do on an Upper Kern raft trip.
This section is typically done by boaters that are doing the 20 mile “Bridge to Bridge” run from the Johnsondale Bridge to the bridge at Kernville at Riverside Park. Sidewinder is not mentioned in the guidebooks, but it’s the first series of rapids immediately downstream from the Fairview diversion dam. The easiest access is a culvert on the “river left” side of the road paralleling the river. Boaters typically continue past the Limestone take-out to an eddy on the left and just upstream of the diversion dam. Take out and hoof it a short distance on the road (watch out!) to a dirt turnout on the left. Look around and you’ll find the culvert. It passes under the diversion sluice. At moderate flows, the rapid is comprised of a class III-IV lead-in to a class IV drop, followed by a somewhat more demanding class IV- IV+ drop. Be sure to scout!
Bombs Away is a short class V rapid downstream from Sidewinder. You can take a look at it from a small turnout on your way to the put-in. Note the rock in the outflow on the left at the bottom of the rapid. It’s covered at higher flows. The rapid is easily scouted or carried at river level on the right.
The class III Fairview Run is a longer, and somewhat more demanding alternative to the Powerhouse Run. While no individual rapid is harder than Ewings rapid on the Powerhouse Run, the rapids tend to be longer, and more maneuvering is required.
The hardest rapid, a short dogleg turn left, is found about half-way through the run. At moderate flows, there are pools above and below the drop. Be careful on this rapid, the current piles into a wall on the right. If you’re not familiar with the line, it’s worth a scout.
At low water, a couple of the rapids become very rocky. At higher water, some sections become fast and continuous, and a long swim is possible. Brush and trees overhang the river at some points.
This is the only class III run on the Upper Kern, upstream of the Powerhouse Run.
Chamise Gorge is a scenic and popular class IV run. The rapids are interesting and technical. The biggest rapids occur prior to entering the low-walled granite canyon, and after exiting the “Gorge” and returning to the road.
One rapid not explicitly listed in guidebooks is Black Bottom Falls (IV-IV+). This drop is just downstream of Satan’s Slot. Depending on the water level there are several options for running this rapid. When there is enough water many boaters prefer running the rocky chute on the far river right, rather than doing the main slot. The rapid can be scouted or portaged on river left.
Be sure to scout the takeout before doing the run.
This segment includes the big class V rapids, Upper Salmon Falls and Lower Salmon Falls, as well as some excellent class IV-IV+ rapids. When combined with the Chamise Gorge and Ant Canyon runs, the result is one of the best one-day class IV or IV+ runs on the Upper Kern. If you’re having a good day, and haven’t played too hard, you can just keep on boatin’ at Corral Creek and cap off the day with a Thunder Run!
Upper Salmon Falls is run from time to time at optimum flows by top experts, but it is much more commonly carried. There are several take-out eddy options on river left. Scout these from the road on your way up! When you do the carry, there is not much of a shoulder, so watch out for cars on the highway. Some boaters prefer to carry all the way to below Lower Salmon Falls, others put-in immediately below Upper Salmon and boat the 1/4 mile stretch between the two rapids.
Lower Salmon Falls is run more frequently. At medium flows, some expert boaters will hop down a series of eddies on river right that lead to a setup eddy on the far right, just above the final drop. You can usually scout or portage the final drop from here.
Last season, an accomplished out-of-state boater was doing this section at around 2500 CFS (at Kernville). He was enjoying the action so much he didn’t notice that he was doing the lead-in for Upper Salmon Falls. By the time he did notice, it was too late, and there was no escape from his terminal line directly into a hole the size of…of…Arizona! Luckily, only a wild rodeo session and swim resulted.
At moderate flows, this class IV run is technical and rocky. In a few places, there is more than one channel, and trees and brush are found in the streambed. The longest, most technical rapid is just downstream of the put-in, so get good and warmed up before starting down.
When the flow is up and expert boaters are not “in the mood” to do a Thunder Run, they sometimes opt to surf the big waves that develop here at high water.
Doing the “Thunder Run” is a rite of passage for local expert boaters. Sock ’em Dog and Fender Bender are probably the toughest rapids on the run. Most kayakers rate them hard class IV unless the water’s up, then they are class V. Although of similar difficulty, the rapids are very different. Sock ’em Dog is relatively clean and unobstructed. Fender Bender is a rocky, heavily obstructed boulder garden with a ledge hole at the bottom, just waiting to suck up any “debris” that happens by.
There are innumerable stories of wild rides on both Sock ’em Dog and Fender Bender. At higher water a surging. diagonal hole/pillow sometimes surfs boats into the worse part of a large hole on Sock ’em Dog. Most of Fender Bender’s extra-curricular activity tends to be focused on the bottom ledge hole. You can scout Fender Bender easily from the road…not so for Sock ’em Dog. Neither is a particularly pleasant portage.
Cable is one of the more popular advanced runs on the Upper Kern. It is run at a wide range of flows, from a rocky low of 1000 CFS (at Kernville) to pushy flows of 5000 CFS or higher. At high flows brush and trees can be a problem, and long swims are possible.
Alternate put-ins include a turnout just south of Camp 3, which is just above The Wall rapid, and Halfway primitive camping area, just below The Wall.
The Powerhouse Run is the most popular on the river. The rapids are exciting but relatively forgiving. Those new to whitewater will find the run challenging, and veterans will enjoy trying to catch every eddy and hit every playspot. Many of our whitewater kayak classes, and our Lickety-Split and Lickety-Blaster raft trips are run on this section of the river.
Boaters looking for a slightly longer run will drive a little further up the highway to Riverkern Beach, so they can do Powerhouse Rapid, a 1/4 mile long class III+ rapid full of waves and holes. As you drive up there is a fairly large paved/dirt turnout on the right, about 1/2 mile or so past the turnoff to the Powerhouse Run put-in.
Boaters will spend hours in the park, working on eddy turns, peel outs, ferries, surfing various waves, side surfing holes, attempting cartwheels, doing squirts and enders, and just about anything else that is possible in a kayak, WW canoe, race-boat or squirt-boat. The quality of the play varies with the flow, but something is almost always working.
Upstream, at Ewings rapid is another playspot. Once again, the type of play and the quality varies with the flow. To learn more about surfing, side-surfing, cartwheels and the like, take one of our playboating classes. It’s amazing what’s possible in the new playboats!
This Class II stretch is done more frequently in high water years. Watch out for brush and trees. A permit is required to paddle on Lake Isabella. Reportedly kayakers have been ticketed for paddling on very short sections of the lake to get to a convenient take-out.
The Dam Run, also known as the BLM Run, or the “first day of the Lower,” is one of a limited number of moderate class III whitewater runs on the Kern River.
The run is characterized by scenic low walled granite gorges and swirly water. There are several places where boaters must be very wary of trees and brush in and along the river. This growth is due in part to the diversion of water from Lake Isabella in the Borel Canal to the Borel Powerplant. The flow on this run is normally about 600 CFS less than the total release from Lake Isabella.
Although the run is rated class III, it is not a good run for novice boaters unless they are accompanied by more experienced boaters. Two of the rapids on this run are rated class III+, as many boaters may flip in the swirly water, as in the rapids.
Some of the more difficult rapids include:
Wallow Rock – The river runs into a mid-stream jumble of rocks. Scout or portage on the left.
Dilly – A long rapid with a large hole on river left, near the end of the rapid. Most boaters stay right, using a series of river right eddies to work their way down the rapid.
Oscar’s Nightmare – A convoluted rapid that can be run in several ways. Watch out for the large hole just below the entrance. The large island of rock in the rapid has a potentially dangerous sieve. There is a private property on the left, just before the rapid.
When Upper Kern flows drop below 1000 CFS many boaters shift their attention to “The Lower.” This excellent 11-mile run has much to offer. With the exception of Royal Flush (V-VI), which is normally portaged, the major rapids are straightforward, but exhilarating class IV. Kayaking playspots can be found throughout the run. Hobo Campground is just upstream of Miracle Hot Springs, and Sandy Flat Campground is about a mile upstream.
The Delonegha Boat Launch and River Access has been completed and provides an alternate take-out or put-in just downstream of the Delonegha bridge, and upstream of Surprise Rapid. The access point is approximately 7 miles downstream of the Hobo Rapid put-in and 4 miles upstream of the Democrat takeout. The day use area is accessible from both the east and west sides of Highway 178.
Some of the more difficult rapids include:
White Maiden’s – Many boaters just shoot this one down the middle, but move left or right near the end to avoid a huge house rock in the center of the channel. Depending on the flow. and your level of expertise, there are many other variations. There is a significant ledge about 2/3 of the way down the rapid. Usually scouted or portaged on the left.
Sundown Falls – This is a tricky rapid; in part, because the outflow at the bottom of the dropkicks hard to the right, and also because the sloping rock that borders the main flow on the right is undercut and swimming paddlers have been recirculated in the hole. Can be scouted from the right or left.
Powerful Possum – Move right behind a rock at the top of the rapid to avoid a hole on the left. If you get too close to the rock, you’ll get eddied out, or spun. At the bottom, move left to avoid the headwall on the runout at the bottom right. Scout, or carry, on the right.
Royal Flush (Portage) – This rapid has many hidden hazards. There is an easy portage on river right. If you’re considering running it, read the Royal Flush near drowning story by Rocky Contos. Others have been trapped in this same spot. Some additional hazards include a spike of rock in the main ledge, and a nasty slot bordering an undercut boulder on river right, just below the main ledge. Also, note that the large square boulder at the end of the portage bridge sits atop other rocks and is a hidden sieve.
Surprise – Like the guidebook says, ” a rock hides in the last of a series of standing waves.”
Hari-Kari – The water pushes you left, and you want to go right. Awkward scout on the right or left.
Horseshoe Falls – One of the best rapids on the run because of the number of “moves” that are possible. At higher flows the hole in the middle of the rapid becomes sizable. Difficult scout because of brush and trees.
Pin Ball – Fun boulder garden for kayaks, sometimes causes problems for rafts.
The Forest Service “discouraged” boating on the Kern Below Democrat Dam until 1995. Even so, the run now known as the Richbar Run was done from time to time by local boaters and visiting dignitaries such as Lars Holbeck.
Keith Beck, with boating partners Phil Martin and Glen Troness, began probing the Kern below Democrat in the early eighties, and around 1984 had done most of the Kern below Democrat, including the stretch below the KR1 powerhouse. Keith reports,
“None of us ran Quadruple Whatever. I used a Sabre (!!!!) for some of it, and a Rotobat (Pyranha) for some parts, and a glass CKS Needle for some.”
Keith also noted that communication was poor among boaters (no Internet!) and that others, including Mark Richey and Kevin Mokracek, were running some sections of the Kern below Democrat at about the same time.
Southern California Edison normally diverts 400+ CFS at Democrat Dam, usually reducing the flow on the Cadillacs, Richbar and Cataracts sections of the river. In the Fall of 1995, as a result of the FERC relicensing of the KR1 powerhouse, the AWA initiated a whitewater flow study by WRC Environmental. In part, the study was to evaluate desirable flow levels and to access the recreational potential of the stretch of river below Democrat. At the time of this study, the Forest Service reversed their position and said that as long as the usual Kern River boating permit is obtained, it is not illegal to boat on the Cataracts.
The WRC flow study concluded the following regarding flow levels on the stretch below Democrat Dam and upstream of the KR1 powerhouse. The figures specified are for actual flow, i.e. the release to the Lower less 400 cfs. The “Flow below Democrat Dam” can usually be obtained from the SCE Kern River flow phone at 1-877-537-6356.
Low boatable (a minority of paddlers would be satisfied: 500-700 cfs
Low Minimum (majority would be satisfied): 700-950 cfs.
Optimum (essentially all satisfied): 950-1750 cfs
High Minimum (majority satisfied): 1750-2350 cfs
High Boatable (minority satisfied): 2350-3000 cfs
Coincident with the flow study and rediscovery of this “new” whitewater resource, kayaker Rocky Contos ran most of the rapids from Democrat Dam to the mouth of Kern Canyon. Rocky’s accounts of running the Cataracts thrilled everyone reading his rec.boats.paddle newsgroup postings. Some of the more exciting stories were included in an article about the Cataracts in the March-April, 1996.
Much has changed in kayaking since 1995, but the Kern Below Democrat remains a somewhat enigmatic and inscrutable section of the river. The long boating season of 2004-2005 renewed interest in the Cataracts and in the Fall of 2005 Brett Valle (boof.com) got together with Eric Giddens (Olympic kayaker) and JD Batove (Bakersfield class V boater) and did a few runs on the KBD. You can read Brett’s impressions in his calrios blog.
This section was deemed the “Cadillacs” because of the number of wrecked cars that have plunged into the streambed from the notorious curves of highway 178. The run starts below Democrat Dam and ends at Toilet Bowl rapid, a chilling class V+ rapid that looks particularly awesome to tired boaters headed home on highway 178.
In general, the rapids on this reach are more demanding than similarly rated rapids on the Lower, upstream of Democrat Dam. More maneuvering is required and the lines are somewhat more technical, with more serious consequences for botched moves. There are more rocks in the flow. A good roll is a must. Some boaters put-in at a convenient turnout below Toilet Bowl, others bypass the most difficult whitewater by putting in below Lucas Creek Falls.
Several rapids should be scouted. The first major rapid, the Fin, is often carried. The second, Island Falls, is generally considered to be class IV on the far left and class V on the far right. There is a portage at Lucas Creek Falls. Watch out for cars!!
This stretch is class V nirvana. If you’re a solid class V boater looking for some good late season boating, here it is! Most boaters just look at these rapids and have to run to the bushes. Triple Falls (aka Quadruple Whatever, Triple Drop, Triple Threat, Another Roadside Attraction) is particularly impressive.
More difficult class V’s and some carries — rarely done.
This run has been essentially destroyed by the construction of Rio Bravo dam.
Class II except for one class III. At one point the river splits around an island. Watch out for brush and trees.
Dry Meadow Creek, Brush Creek & More
If you’ve done the Forks, you’ve probably gazed in awe at the beautifully sculptured granite potholes, slides, and waterfalls of Dry Meadow Creek.
Pick your superlative—amazing, awesome, incredible, aesthetic—it would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the “Edge of the World” section of this creek. The first run by Gary Gunder and Brandon Prince on a chilly December day in 1995, this creek has become a “must do” for top boaters from around the country, and around the world.
This very steep creek should only be attempted by boaters with extensive creeking experience. One quarter mile section drops more than 1400 fpm! There are numerous “runnable” waterfalls in the 8 ft. to 22 ft. range, but two huge 40 to 50 ft. killer falls are found near the end of the run. Following their first descent, Gary and Brandon said that doing the run was like paddling off the “edge of the world.”
Limestone run, about a quarter mile downstream from the Johnsondale bridge. It is a “steep creek,” dropping 550 vertical feet in about 1.5 miles. If you enjoy steep, rocky drops and running waterfalls, it’s a classic.
The uppermost put-in for the run is at Rincon Camp. This can be reached by driving up Sherman Pass Road to the helicopter pad and then following the sign down to Rincon Camp. Many boaters prefer to park near the helicopter pad (don’t park on the pad) and then hike down to the creek. This bypasses the initial brushy segment of the run and avoids the rough road down to the put-in. From Rincon Camp, the run is about 1.5 miles long and drops about 550 feet. From the helicopter pad put-in, it’s about 1.1 miles and drops 450 feet.
The super-high-quality segment from the helicopter pad put-in to the “S-turn drop” is commonly done without any carries. The S-turn drop is a 5-6 ft. drop that can be seen from Sherman Pass Road near the 4000 ft. sign. It follows the “combination drop” pictured left and has a downward-sloped, fan-shaped shelf forming the lip of the drop. After the S-turn, the creek dog-legs to the left.
Many boaters carry the section from the pool below the S-turn to where the trail (on river right) is near the creek again, at a rocky area. Below here are a variety of drops, including a vertical slot that some boaters run, but others avoid by sliding down a steep trough. After crossing under the bridge, but before the confluence with the Kern, is a tricky drop that should be scouted.
While this run is about as clean as a steep creek can get, people have broken boats, badly strained their backs, broken elbows, and egos on this run; so scout frequently and know what you’re doing. If you choose not to run the biggest waterfall, the portage is not a simple walk around. There is an unofficial gage on the bridge at the parking lot take-out that boaters use for a reference. What a particular reading means varies a lot from boater to boater, but basically under 1 is very boney; 2 is low runnable; 5 is high; anything above 5 is very high. At any level, things happen fast and good judgment and paddling skills are required.
There are some wild stories about the first descent of this difficult Kern tributary.
The South Fork Kern was originally done by Royal Robbins, et. al.
The first five miles of this nearly 20 mile Southern Sierra wilderness run will lull you into thinking this run has no gradient. When you cross under the Pacific Crest Trail bridge at mile five get ready for a change of scenery, over the next four miles the gradient averages about 200 fpm! Bouldery rapids in a creekish streambed continue until you pass under the PCT a second time, about two miles from the takeout.
There are several potential portages on this IV-V run. The most difficult section is the most remote.
The information presented here is not a substitute for your own good judgment. There is a saying, “You never run the same river twice.” Very small changes in flow can result in dramatic changes in the way a rapid is run, or even if the rapid can be run. Logs, strainers and other hazards can appear overnight. Rapids can be changed by floods, landslides and other geologic processes. Even the simple shift in the position of one boulder can dramatically affect the safety of a rapid. It’s a good idea to check with local boaters prior to doing a run, and “If in doubt, scout. If still in doubt, portage.”
Any river can be a dangerous place. The best way to learn about rafting or kayaking is through a professional outfitter. We offer many different kinds of raft trips and kayaking lessons, so you can maximize your enjoyment of the sport and all that it has to offer. Always, always wear a proper lifejacket when on, or near, the river!
Sierra South operates under permits issued by: Sequoia National Forest, Klamath National Forest, and the National Park Service/Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Sierra South is an equal opportunity recreation service provider.