8 Awesome Things to Do on California's Kern River

By: Kathryn Casna

Looking for a great place to visit where you can really get a feel for the California landscape? Then check out the Kern River. The Kern River starts in the mountains near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park and empties into Isabella Lake at the southern tip of the park near Kernville, CA. Full of adventures and outdoor fun, there are plenty of things to do on a day trip or a week-long vacation. No matter how long you visit, make the most of your trip by doing the following things:


8. Hike and Drive Along the River

Where’s the best place to get views of the river and Sequoia National Park? How about a little exercise? Follow the Kern! Start at the southern end, near Isabella Lake. Drive around the lake on 178, 155, and Sierra Way. Then, meet up with Mountain Highway 99 and drive along the river for around 18 miles. Next, you have a choice. You can start hoofing it for a few miles, or you can stay on 99 until it meets up with Forest Route 22S82. You’ll depart from the river for a while, but you’ll meet again. That is, until you hit mountains. From there, hiking is the best way to stay close. Casual hikers won’t be able to follow the river all the way to its origins in Kings Canyon National Park. Just go as far as is enjoyable, and you can’t go wrong!

Kern River

7. White Water Tubing

Caution: this activity is not for the faint of heart, so tube at your own risk! There are several places with calm enough rapids to (relatively) safely tube, but my favorite is about a mile up river from Limestone Campground, where highway 99 crosses the Kern. You’ll need someone to drive you to the drop-off point – a parking lot at South Creek – and pick you up at Limestone Campground, unless you want to take a 20 minute walk. Take your tube down the small path and carefully lower yourself into the water at the bottom. Paddle into the current and enjoy! When you meet the rapids (there are several along the way), raise your feet and head, tuck your butt in, and hold on! If possible, go with a friend who knows the best path through. Nerves of steel and a helmet are a good idea, too.

rapids kern river

6. Unwind with Riverfront Views

How do you unwind? Whether you enjoy reading, going for a run, or hanging out with friends and family, you can do it all on the Kern River. And chances are, it’s going to be better out here in nature. Why? Because no matter what you love doing, the natural beauty of the river adds a whole new level of peace. Does yoga bring you serenity? Do a few Sun Salutations or Tree Poses as the morning’s first few rays enter the canyon. Do you enjoy having quiet time to think? Grab a lawn chair, your favorite beverage, and park yourself under a river-front tree. The bubbling river and cool breezes are nothing short of inspiring. Do social activities refresh you? Bring your friends and family to river to enjoy it all with you. Everything’s better in a place you love, and you’ll love the Kern River.

kern river view

5. Jump off Alligator Rock

Elton John has Crocodile Rock, and the Kern River has Alligator Rock. Located just down the hill from Limestone Campground near Isabella Lake, Alligator Rock is the place to show off your cannonball skills. This rock formation looks like the head of the ancient creature emerging from the river waters below to a height of nearly 10 feet above. A playful outdoorsman has even painted on a pair of smiling red eyes so the alligator can see well enough to judge your form. It’s not uncommon for grown men, giggling teenagers, and even small children to jump from the alligator’s snout with a splash below. The water here is calm and deep enough for feet-first jumping. Plus, there’s plenty of space for waiting parents to catch little ones when they jump. Alligator Rock can be slippery, however, so use caution and accompany children at all times!

Photo by: Kernville Hotels
Photo by: Kernville Hotels


4. Relax in the Cool, Clear Waters

Sometimes, in the planning and preparing for a camping or river trip, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress of all the little details that make a trip fun and smooth. Then there’s the action and excitement of your river visit. Luckily, the Kern River has some great opportunities for relaxing as well. One favorite is grabbing an inner tube, inflatable mattress, or even half a dozen carefully arranged pool noodles – taking a deep breath – and soaking. Some stretches of the river have very little current. In others, relaxers who have come before you tied ropes from shore to opposite shore, enabling a few fingers or toes to keep you from floating away. Grab a beverage of your choice (alcohol is permitted but glass is not), your favorite wide-brimmed hat, and some shades to enjoy a peaceful float on your favorite river.

scenic kern river

3. Go Fishing

While there are definitely more popular places to fish in California, like the Owens River Valley and Crowley Lake, the Kern River is a great choice for fishermen who don’t enjoy large crowds. The Kern is open for fishing all year-round, but has fewer restrictions in the spring. You can wrangle 3 California Heritage Native Trout, including Little Kern Golden Trout, Golden Trout, and Kern River Rainbow Trout. Eagle Lake Trout, carp, hitch, channel catfish, largemouth bass, and crappie are also in the river. Fly fishing guide services are available, or you can hit sites like Kennedy Meadows, Riverkern Beach, Paradise Cove, and Democrat Picnic Area. Or, check out the Whitewater River Hike. Most of the best fishing sites are within 50 miles of Isabella Lake, and some riverside campgrounds are pretty decent places to fish, too. For peace, relaxation, and some good ol’ fishin’, head to Kern!

fishing kern river

2. Camping

What better way to fully enjoy the Kern River than to spend a few days or more here? Pack a bag and a bedroll and head on out! There are dozens of day use and overnight campgrounds along the Kern River. Many have river views or river access so you can head right down to the water in just minutes. Different campgrounds allow different types of camping, so make sure you find the right one for the size of your RV, the number of people in your group, and other needs like sewage dumping and trash barrels. Most campgrounds have restrooms and trash barrels. Camp fires are not permitted due to the dryness of the area and the fire danger, but gas grills are. Depending on where you camp, you could wake up each morning to mountain views, the sound of the bubbling river, and early morning deer sightings.

Photo by: Goodie Goodie Goodie
Photo by: Goodie Goodie Goodie

1. Fall in Love with Nature

One of the best things about a river is that it attracts wildlife of all kinds. Rivers are life-giving places where species that would never otherwise interact often meet. And there are some incredible species in the Sequoia National Park. Up in the more mountainous portions of the river, you could see bighorn sheep on the hills above you. Black bears enjoy foraging in nearby meadows, so be sure to protect yourself and your food! Mule deer, several species of squirrels, and even mountain lions can also be observed along the river. If you’re a birder, keep an eye and ear out for over 200 species of birds, including peregrine falcons, brown-headed cowbirds, and Bullock’s orioles, to name a few. And, of course, the Kern River is the lifeblood of a variety of plant life. Sit under gnarled blue oaks, giant sequoias, and ponderosa pine.

Kern river 2