White water rafting
in Southern California!
About 21/2 hours north of Los Angeles, 60 miles NE of Bakersfield…
by Deborah S. Shadovitz
(A version of this was first written for ValleyLife Magazine, June 2009, when I was its Editor. On the web, I am able to elaborate and on my own site I can add some more of my own feelings.)
As my friends and I meandered down a slower part of the River Kern on a warm summer day, I found myself thinking it’s a pity that every American doesn’t get to raft this beautiful river through this magnificent canyon.
Rafting is a perfect shared experience: relaxation, flowing water, sun, great food, and the rewarding feeling of getting past hurdles because of teamwork.
Since the mid-1970s, the Kern River has been a prime spot for rafting. One reason is Lake Isabella, which sits below the Upper Kern holding water to feed the Lower Kern.
The River Kern rafting season begins in April when the snows atop Mt Whitney melt into the Upper Kern, filling it and making it an active adventure. It ends around the end of August when the water in the Lower Kern becomes too shallow.
There are several ways you can experience rafting on the Kern, water levels dictating your options and the specifics of your trip.
- There’s the 3-mile Lickety Split out of Kernville.
- For experienced rafters, there’s the Thunder Run on the Upper Kern in April/May while the snow melt creates fast-running water.
- There are half, full, or two-day trips on the Lower Kern.
The Lickety Split, a 3-mile run on the Upper Kern, is a good, quick introduction to rafting. This is adventurous when the snow is melting in April/May; mellow and great for young families starting in June. With Kern River rafting legend Chuck Richards, at the helm, my friend and I ran the Lickety Split when the water was high in mid-May and it was a rushing 40-minute adventure. Later in the summer, it can take 1½ hours and be a fun-filled but relaxing day.
Because there are seven rafting companies commercially doing this run and it’s relatively short, even during the busy season, you should be able to get into it without a reservation. For example, you can just show up at Frandy Park, right along the river in Kernville, to ride with Kern River Tours or Eagle Rafting. You can’t show up too late in the day to make the run though, so it’s still best to call ahead.
For a fuller rafting experience, especially after May, you’ll want to be on the Lower Kern. There are four companies you can choose between for that. The U.S. Forest Service restricts the number of tour licenses to keep river traffic down and also limits the number of people each company can launch each day, so you’ll need to reserve this ahead of time, at least calling a day ahead.
At times a portion of the river may run too fast or is too shallow. Your guides will adjust your trip to accommodate the river, so you may get out of your rafts and be driven past those areas. You may then re-run some portions instead. Interestingly, you may not even recognize a re-run area because the river is never exactly the same.
White Water Classes
You’ll hear the water described Class I-VI. This refers to the amount of white water — the speed, height and challenge of the water. Class I is calm, II gives you a bit of a kick, and IV will have that foamy white water coming up and hitting you. (V requires experience and VI is not runnable.)
Intro to Rafting with Kern River Tours
For my rafting introduction, I chose Kern River Tours because it’s the longest-running company there, it’s independently owned, and its managing owner Kenny Bushling is a Kernville native who began as a rafting guide himself in 1986.
[Unfortunately, KRT closed in 2019. However, the experience of rafting on the Kern is so great and there are other opportunities. We also had another.]
Two friends (Lorrie and Gary) and I did KRT’s two-day trip which gave us the opportunity to become familiar with rafting the first day, building to faster water the next.
I liked that we stopped for lunch and also had opportunities to jump out of the rafts and swim. We rough camped, enjoying an excellent full-course dinner prepared by our guides. On the 2nd day, after a hearty breakfast was again prepared for us, we progressed further down the river and its Class III and IV waters.
From the moment we arrived at the KRT office in Lake Isabella, we felt we were among friends and knew we were in for a great time. This trip was about socializing and enjoying being outdoors as much as rafting.
Before we started out, we got a detailed paddling lesson, learning to power the oars by moving our back and abdominal muscles, rather than our arms.
My friends and I manned one boat, while four strangers manned the other. (Because it was early in the season there were fewer of us and thus, fewer boats. Expect there to be five six-person boats when you go.) At the request of the other four men, who raft with KRT every year, KRT was even kind enough to bring along an inflatable kayak (IK) that we were all allowed to try.
Our guides, Scooter and Dave, were intimate with the river, its surroundings, and its history, sharing this information freely. As anticipated, the trip was both relaxing and exhilarating — totally enjoyable.
At times we’d be in calm water and paddling was optional.
Occasionally we’d approach rocks and our guide would instruct us on how to navigate around them. In the calmer waters, we enjoyed conversation, wild ducks, rare turtles, hawks, beavers, the famous Warblers of the Kern River Valley, and glimpses of hot springs.
we’d hear the sound of rushing water and teasingly ask,
“is that rapids we hear?”
Our guides had fun with this, sometimes implying danger by giving us the name of the rapid, such as Hari-Kari.
Other times, they’d say, “We’re not going to tell you this one’s name until you get through it.” (Eat Rocks and Bleed, named by Chuck Richards was one of those.)
Soon we’d see the white water ahead and be instructed on how to steer through, over or around the trees, rocks, and drops. We’d be bouncing over rocks and waves, trying to make our paddles actually make any contact with the water — and at that moment icy cold foam would come right up into our faces. Happily, before we were even done laughing over the excitement of it, we were dry again.
Much of the time, Lorrie and I manned our 12-foot raft alone with our guide because Gary was shooting the rapids solo in the kayak.
Lorrie and I particularly loved it when our guide, Dave, bumped us off boulders to spin us around. For that reason, Pinball was our favorite rapid. Lots of bumping and spinning! It was fun but didn’t threaten to toss us into the water.
Lorrie and I did a great job of remaining in our raft, but I have to admit that while I didn’t fall out, I did fall into it as you can see here.
If that sounds scary, it’s not. In fact, each time I slid down off the side of the raft and landed on the floor, I’d be laughing so hard I couldn’t get back up to paddle through. (And you want to be paddling. Your raft-mates need you to be paddling!)
After breakfast in the morning, instead of going to the boats, the guys started up a hill.
“Are you coming?” they called to me and Lorrie?
“Where?” we asked.
“To swim a rapid,” they replied.
Yep, they were about to jump into the ice-cold morning water right before some white water and go floating through it. My response was a certain no. And a short hike later I was on the shore receiving instructions for how to not drown in the foam.
The water was cold, the foam was scary, and I had a strange habit of floating the wrong way, but thanks to the very nice one-time strangers, I made it through and celebrated. (Our guide escorted Lorrie, who is not one to shy away from a challenge either.)
Go Jump off a Cliff?
Sometime on the second afternoon, we pulled over for a break. Or so I thought. Until the four guys, and Gary, started up the rock in this photo….
This was one adventure Lorrie and I passed on, but the guys all got a charge out of it!
Note: In 2017 when the snow pack was more than usual, water temperatures and currents made things “treacherous.” When warned not to jump off cliffs (or not the raft) do listen. In 2017 people who did not listen, did drown.
The four former college buddies in the other raft were doing this trip with KRT for the fifth year in a row and they loved this one weekend a year where they get to be boys again.
As we traversed the water, I realized what a great experience this would be for families. It’s a perfect shared experience: relaxation, flowing water, sun, great food, and the rewarding feeling of getting past hurdles because of teamwork. I found myself thinking it’s a pity that every American doesn’t get to raft this beautiful river through this magnificent canyon.
Rough Camping (and cell phones)
Due to Forest Service rules, there are no permanent structures along the river so all overnight rafting involves rough camping.
Rough camping is tent camping without running water and electricity. With KRT it’s not terribly rough though. We brought our own tents and sleeping bags or blankets. KRT provided nice pads to sleep on.
In lieu of running water, KRT provides a foot-pumped washing area so we can wash our hands and faces. (Swimming takes the place of a shower on this trip.) We’re talking porta potties rather than flush toilets.
There’s nothing rough about the food with KRT! They’ve got an entire kitchen area set up and cook up quite a spread for dinner and breakfast. (Lunch is a terrific spread too, but isn’t part of the camping experience.)
If you have any worries about hauling your tent, sleeping bag, towels, and clothing, don’t. When you arrive at the KRT offices, you park your car and hand over your stuff. The team carefully loads it into a trailer and transports it for you. They even took my iPhone for me so I’d have it at night — just so I could call some friends and tell them what they were missing. (AT&T works in the Kern area. Verizon and Sprint didn’t at the time I did this.)
The Upper Kern Lickety Split
Although we’d intended for our two-day trip to be our maiden rafting voyage, Lorrie and I had a surprise initiation — in the Upper Kern as it ran fast!
To learn about the area, we met with the one-and-only legendary Chuck Richards, who is commonly considered the first to take people down the Kern in rafts. The water was running fast, and Chuck was in the mood for some excitement. So he had a talk with his pal Janet Sharp, the nice co-owner of Eagle Rafting, and after a short bus ride, we “put in” at the top of the Lickety Split run.
The first time I realized we were heading directly into waves of white splashing water — and stopping to get out wasn’t an option —I thought, “What am I doing here?!”
But we were with Chuck Richards — the living legend of the Kern River, the old-hat rafter who loved the thrills and excitement — and certainly knows what he is doing.
“Go! Go!, Go!” Chuck commanded.
Per Chuck’s instruction, we kept on “paddling though.” When our paddles could reach the water that is! Half the time we were on such a crest that our oars couldn’t reach the water, even as we perched on the edge of the raft and tried to lean. Then the wave would dip, our oars would reach below the surface and we’d feel our strokes propel us. Soon we reached calm — well calmer — water. How exhilarating!
Forty mostly breathless minutes later, we stepped up on the Frandy Park beach and said “wow!”
We headed to our hotel, the Kern River Inn, to shower and then to the Kern River Brewery for a much-needed burger and home-brewed beer.
About the rafting companies we experienced
Kern River Tours — unfortunately, closed since 2019.
Clothing for Rafting on the Kern River in Southern California
You’ll want the right shorts or pants for this!
I not-so-brilliantly did a run in a short polyester skirt and the hem rubbing under my legs was quite uncomfortable. I strongly suspect that denim shorts would be as uncomfortable. I strongly recommend you wear quick-drying board shorts.
I also recommend water shoes. Sneakers will quickly stay wet and remain wet and soggy.
And a hat or sun visor or sunglasses, plus sunscreen. If you’re camping overnight bring a windbreaker as well in case it gets cool.
KRV Novelty Company, smack in the center of Kernville sells everything you’ll need to make your stay at the river fun. Owner Lucian Whitman gave great advice. I was able to choose from a selection of inexpensive board shorts there. Lorrie was also able to pick up rafting shoes there.
KRV Novelty Company
11101 Kernville Road, Kernville CA 93238
(Across from the Kernville Inn and Frandy Park)
Also see: Places to Stay in Kernville