Kern River Boaters Guide

About the Kern

river and sun icon Sierra South Mountain Sports Kern River California

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 first 20 miles of the Lower Kern has dependable summer flows, warm water, and exhilarating class II-IV rapids. The Cataracts of the Kern below Democrat Dam is known worldwide as one of the most challenging pieces of whitewater that only the best kayakers in the world will paddle.

Like steep creeks? Brush Creek is one of the best class IV creeks in California, and Dry Meadow Creek even steeper, more difficult, and one of the most beautiful places in the world to kayak!

A section by section resource guide for paddling on the Kern River:

North Fork Kern River

Headwaters of the Kern (Class III-V)

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.

Put in: Junction Meadow

Takeout: Confluence of the Little Kern and North Fork Kern

Flow Range: 1000-3000cfs

Length: 40 miles

The Forks of the Kern (Class III-V)

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 tail stands 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 have done the Forks at 9000 CFS all the way down to 150 cfs. At high flows, the entire stretch has been run in under 1.5 hours! 

Put in: Confluence of Little Kern and North Fork Kern

Takeout: Johnsondale Bridge

Flow Range: 150cfs-5500cfs

Length: 18 miles

Limestone (Class IV)

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.

Put in: Johnsondale Bridge

Takeout: Willow Point

Flow Range: 500cfs-8000cfs

Length: 2 miles

Fairview (Class II-III)

The class II-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.

Put in: Fairview Day use area

Takeout: Calkins Flat

Flow Range: 1000cfs-8000cfs

Length: 3 miles

Chamise Gorge (Class IV)

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.

Put in: Calkins Flat

Takeout: Salmon Creek Falls Pulloff

Flow Range: 700cfs-8000cfs

Length: 2.5 miles

Ant Canyon (Class III-IV)

At moderate flows, this class III-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 called Bombay so get nice and warmed up before starting down.

When the flow is up this run has many large holes and features to avoid.

Put in: Ant Canyon Campground

Takeout: Corral Creek Day use area

Flow Range: 1200cfs-8000cfs

Length: 3 miles

Thunder Run (Class IV-V)

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  Sock ’em Dog can be scouted on river left. 

Put in: Corral Creek

Takeout: Halfway Campground

Flow Range: 1400cfs-8000cfs

Length: 4 miles

Cables (Class IV)

The Cable run 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 1200 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.

Put in: Thunderbird Campground

Takeout: KR3

Flow Range: 1200cfs-8000cfs

Length: 4 miles

Powerhouse/Lickety Split (Class II-III)

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.

Put in: Riverkern Beach or KR3

Takeout: Riverside Park

Flow Range: 500cfs-10000cfs

Length: 3 miles

Lower Kern River

The Picto (Class II-III)

The Picto, also known as 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. 

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.

Put in: Slippery Rock Boat Launch

Takeout: Hobo Campground

Flow Range: 300cfs-5000cfss

Length: 8 miles

The Gusto (Class III-IV)

When Upper Kern flows drop below 1000 CFS many boaters shift their attention to “The Lower.” This excellent 12-mile run has much to offer. With the exception of the 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 provides an alternate take-out or put-in just downstream of the Delonegha bridge, and upstream of Surprise Rapid. The access point is approximately 8 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.

Put in: Miracle Hotsprings

Takeout: Democrat Dam

Flow Range: 700cfs-5800cfs

Length: 12 miles

The Cataracts of the Kern (Class V-V+)

The world-famous Cataracts of the Kern are one of the pinnacles of whitewater kayaking, especially when the flows are above 3,000cfs. This section is for highly advanced kayakers. For more details on this section of the river please contact a Kern local for the beta.