HAZARD: IMPORTANT NOTE - CLICK HERE! February 1, 2017. High flows are expected on the Upper Kern, Brush Creek and Lower Kern. The increasing flow and high-water levels will increase the amount of debris in the river, and the likelihood of logs, strainers and other hazards. Rapids and eddies can change dramatically. They can become easier or more difficult. New rapids can form. Self rescue can become more difficult with the speed of the current and lack of eddy lines. The location of such hazards may change at any time. Extra care should be taken on or near the river. When in doubt, get out and scout!
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 that 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.
Some of the more difficult rapids include:
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 below Joe'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!
The class III Fairview Run is a longer and somewhat more demanding alternative to the Powehouse 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 downstrream 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 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.
The Powerhouse Run is the post 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 river.
Boaters looking for a slightly longer run will drive a little further up the highway to Riverkern Beach, so they can do Powehouse 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, sidesurfing holes, attempting cartwheels, doing squirts and enders, and just about anything else that is possible in a kayak, WW canoe, raceboat or squirtboat. 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 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.