Whitewater & Scenery

The Upper Kern River is pool-drop, meaning that at normal flows, there are typically calm spots between each rapid. The rapids vary from technical boulder slaloms and S-turns, to big splashy wave trains. The Upper Most of the 20 miles of the Upper Kern have roadside access, but the road doesn’t intrude on the natural setting of the river. Pine trees and grasses line the canyon and in the springtime, wildflowers abound. One of the greatest things about the Upper Kern River is that there is incredible diversity in your boating options. The easiest way to divide the Upper sections is based on the difficulty of the rapids, in addition to some natural dividers such as dams, diversions, and portages. The Upper Kern drops over 1100 feet in 20 miles, making the river pretty steep in sections such as the Gold Ledge Run. Because the Upper Kern is a fairly narrow gorge, at higher water, all of the sections become much more pushy and challenging, so make sure to check flows before you go.

Insider Tip

One fun option near the Kern River is kayaking Brush Creek, a Class IV creek (V at higher flows) that has big, straightforward drops, including a 20 foot waterfall. In the spring, expert kayakers compete in a race on Brush Creek.

Sections of the Upper Kern River

  • Limestone (Class III-IV): This 2.5 mile section is perfect for intermediate paddlers. It runs in the springtime when the snow starts melting and has nice scenery and fun rapids such as Joe’s Diner and its namesake rapid, Limestone. This section cuts through limestone (hence its name) rather than the typical granite gorge. The Limestone section on the Upper Kern begins at the Johnsondale Bridge and ends at the Fairview Dam. Make sure to take out before the Fairview Dam!
  • Fairview (Class III+): The 2.8 mile Fairview section is a good adventure, with a few fun Class III rapids. Put in below the Class V Bomb’s Away rapids and take out at Calkins Flat Campground. The Fairview Run can be combined with the Chamise Gorge section for a longer, harder run, since there is no dam or diversion tunnel between the two. The reason they are separated is because of the difference in difficulty.
  • Chamise Gorge (Class IV-IV+): This section has a steeper gradient of 62 ft/mi. It is known for a few technical Class IV rapids such as Entrance Rapid and Satan’s Slot, but there are a few other fun Class IV rapids. The Chamise Run is one of the few parts of the Upper Kern that flows away from the road, into Chamise Gorge, making for a remote wilderness experience. Put in at the Calkins Flat Campground and take out before the Class VI Salmon Falls. It is a good idea to scout the take-out prior to starting your trip, to make sure that you don’t accidentally float into Salmon Falls.
  • Gold Ledge Run (aka “Thunder Run”) (Class V): This 7.2 mile run is the hardest section on the Upper Kern River. It can be combined with the easier Camp 3 and Powerhouse runs to make an 11.6 mile run. Several thrilling rapids such as Squashed Paddler, Sock-em-Dog, Fender Bender and Cable make the Gold Ledge section perfect for expert kayakers and rafters. The canyon scenery in this section is also quite nice, but you won’t have much time to look around and enjoy it since you’ll be paddling to avoid enormous holes and rocks and make your way safely through some very challenging white water. Put in is just below Salmon Falls (Class VI) and the take out is the Camp 3 Campground.
  • Camp 3 (Class IV): Although the camp 3 section is only a short 2.5 miles, it packs in some great Class III and IV whitewater. The Wall, Tombstone, Tequila Chute, and Pepsi Challenge are all excellent intermediate rapids. Take out just below Powerhouse rapid, or continue on through the Kernville run.
  • Kernville/Powerhouse Run (Class II-III): The Powerhouse run is the classic beginner run on the Upper Kern. Ewings, Powerhouse, and Big Daddy Rapids will either be a fun challenge or put the fear of God into beginner paddlers. Boaters often choose to run this short 2 mile section several times in a day. Outfitters usually run groups through this same run several times, once or twice in a raft and then on their own in an inflatable kayak if they want a bigger thrill. Once you get to the Kern playpark, you can take out or practice your skills in the Slalom Course Rapid where they have whitewater slalom races at the Kern River Festival each year.