Boasting the widest variety of whitewater found on any river in California, from Class V technical rapids to an in-town whitewater park (in Kernville), the 20-mile upper section of the Kern River offers something for kayakers and rafters of all levels. Relying on spring runoff from the Sierra, the Upper Kern River is best run between 1000-5000 cfs.
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It is divided into eight short sections that can be run by expert rafters and kayakers from top to bottom with a few portages. Mountain Road 99 (a.k.a. Kern River Highway) parallels the Upper Kern for almost the entire 20 miles and provides easy shuttle access, making it a great place to do “laps” or enjoy several runs in one day. The Upper Kern begins just downstream of the take-out for the Forks run, below Johnsondale Bridge.
Limestone Run (Class III-IV) is the first section, an excellent warm-up run with fairly technical rapids such as Joe’s Diner, Betty’s Bakery, and Limestone Rapid. Take-out is just upstream of the un-runnable Fairview Dam.
Fairview Run (Class III) begins just below Fairview Dam and is a great intermediate section with fun wave trains and boulder-strewn rapids.
Chamise Gorge (Class IV) is many boater’s favorite section of the Upper, because of the more intimate, canyon setting and fun rapids such as Black Bottom Falls and Satan’s Slot. Chamise is a scenic, technical, section of the Kern that strays from the road, providing the most remote run on the Upper Kern Solid Class IV+ boaters can combine the Fairview Run with Chamise Gorge. Upper Salmon Falls (Class VI) marks the end of Chamise Gorge and is almost always portaged. Lower Salmon Falls is an expert-only Class V rapid.
Ant Canyon (Class IV) begins below Salmon Falls and is a short Class IV section. Ant Canyon is a great warm-up for the Class V Thunder Run that follows.
The Thunder Run (Class V) is steep and technical, dropping 63 feet per mile and providing world-class rapids such as Sock-‘em-Dog. Much of the run can be scouted from the road and Sock-‘em-Dog can be scouted from the river right.
The Thunder Run flows into the Cable Run (Class IV) and adds more whitewater excitement. Cable is straightforward and a great run for rafters and kayakers making the transition between from Class III to intermediate Class IV.
Powerhouse Run (Class II-III+) is the last of the eight sections and flows right into the town of Kernville. It’s namesake, Powerhouse Rapid, is a great Class III+ photo opportunity and a fun rapid to run in an inflatable kayak as well. The Powerhouse Run ends with a world-class whitewater park that runs through the town of Kernville. The Kernville Whitewater Park is a great place for beginner kayakers and experts alike to spend a day honing their skills.