Dissecting the Kern River

The Kern River is a fantastic playground of whitewater. Close to Los Angeles and San Diego, it offers plenty of everything: Ranging from mellow, hour long floats and upwards to a multi-day, class V run. A newbie coming into the Kern scene can get lost with what goes where. Hopefully this breakdown will give some clarity.

The Lower Kern

The Lower Kern is the area of river that leaves Lake Isabella, heading towards Bakersfield. The main rafting section is about 20 miles long with the takeout at Democrat Beach. Generally speaking, the rapids are class III – IV. There is the Royal Flush (class V+, portaged commercially) a bit more than halfway through. There is decent access to the river, but the road does pull away and above the river, so compared to the Upper Kern, access isn’t as great.

Kern River

Total Length: Around 20 miles.
Difficulty: Class III-IV, with one Class-V+ portage.
Season: Dependent on water being released from the dam. Typically starts Memorial Day weekend through early to mid September.

The Upper Kern

This is where the majority of kayakers play. The Upper Kern is from Johnsondale Bridge down to Kernville. Technically speaking, you could float from Kernville into Lake Isabella, but that’s mostly flat water. Looking at a map, the Upper Kern is a mecca of whitewater. Miles of it.

With that being said, you need to take into consideration Fairview Dam (red star, just below the top of the map). The dam pulls water a few miles below Johnsondale Bridge and then dumps it back in at the Powerhouse (red star, just above Kernville). In really low water years, the extraction of water leaves those miles between the dam and powerhouse too dry to kayak or raft down, which is a bummer. In normal or higher water seasons though, the Upper Kern bundled with it’s terrific access (the road runs right along the river) make it a fantastic area to raft or kayak, commercially or privately.

Kern River

Length: Dependent on section of river. From a couple miles to a dozen miles.
Difficulty: All ranges.
Season: Dependent on snowpack. Typically early – mid April through early July.

The Forks of the Kern

Ahhh, the Forks. This refreshing section of class-V whitewater has been featured in National Geographic and Outside Magazine as a definite favorite in terms of multi-day class-V rafting. This beauty is the 18 miles upstream of Johnsondale Bridge (Upper Kern). You need to know what you’re doing to run this. First, there’s the put-in. To reach the water you need to hike 2.5 miles into the canyon, not an easy task if you’re carrying more than a kayak. (Commercial outfits will schedule a pack train of mules to carry their gear in.) Then there’s the whitewater. And a lot of it.

Back to back to back class IV and V rapids keep you busy and your gut wrenched. With difficult and little access, you don’t want to be with anyone inexperienced once you push off from the island (put-in). 18 miles and typically two days later, you pass Johnsondale Bridge. Kayakers often take out here, but given it’s steep uphill, rafters float down to Fairview Dam.

Kern River

Length: 18 miles to Johnsondale Bridge.
Difficulty: Class-V.
Season: Dependent on snowpack. Typically early May through early July.


The Kern arguably offers the best whitewater in Southern California. With a drive time of about 3 hours from downtown Los Angeles, this seemingly unheard of whitewater capitol has rapids for absolute beginners and experts alike. With a season that runs much longer than other Southern California rivers, the Kern should definitely be on the to-do list for the adventurous soul. As a final note, please keep in mind that you do need permits to run this river, which can be obtained from the Forest Service.

Guide contributed by Matt Volpert of Kern River Outfitters.