Forks of The Kern: The gem of the Kern River
When the water is right, the Forks of the Kern presents some of the most scenic, toughest, and fun boating in the West. Unimpeded by dams, the flows are highly variable year to year which makes the season hard to predict as it is snowpack and subsequent melt dependent. However, when the Forks is flowing, the water is clear, cool, and full of big, fun whitewater. Top to bottom this river section contains stout class IV, the occasional class V, and very little downtime.
Forks of The Kern Information
Commercially, the only way to see the Forks of the Kern trip is a Two Day. Privately, the vast majority of users opt for shorter trips: One day or less. With a put-in that requires a 2 mile hike and no road support for 15 miles, The Forks is not for the faint of heart.
Take county road M99 from Kernville towards Johnsondale. Stash shuttle vehicles in the parking lot just after Johnsondale Bridge. Continue on M99 past the town of Johnsonale. A half mile past Johnsondale turn right onto forest road (2S82) toward Lloyds Meadow and follow it for 19 miles. After 19 miles, turn right onto forest road (20S67) at a sign labeled “Forks of the Kern.”* Follow this road for three miles until you reach the parking lot at Lloyd’s Meadow. The Forks trailhead is at the eastern tip of the meadow.
*As of August, 2019, this sign has been knocked down.
Depending on which type of craft you use, the Forks is runnable from flows of 250 – 4,000 CFS. Hardshell kayaks are suitable for all runnable flows. Flows 250 – 500 is best in an inflatable kayak or hardshell. From 500-750, tiny rafts, such as a Hyside Mini Max or Shredder are ideal. Above that to 2,500 CFS, rafts measuring up to 13 feet work fine. Above 2,500 CFS and you’ll want larger rafts, 14 foot, for example. With flows above 3,000 CFS, the recovery time between rapids is minimal. Only go at high water if you are with a crew with solid experience with the Forks at these flows. Keep in mind that the river gauge referencing these flows is located in Kernville, which is miles below the Forks takeout. There is a gauge located further upstream, at Fairview Dam / Willow Point, (still below the Forks takeout) but when someone asks “what’s the flow?” they are most often referring to the Kernville reading.
Getting to the river from the trailhead
While the hike is downhill, it is not easy. Private rafters strategically choose their gear based on weight and how comfortable it is to carry. This often means rolling rafts ‘burrito style’ and using two or more people to carry each raft. The halfway marker for the trail is a metal post in the middle of the path that is in the shade of a large oak tree. Alternatively, and what commercial rafting companies do, is you can hire a mule pack train to haul your equipment down. Golden Trout Pack Station is your only option for mules. We recommend making mule reservations well in advance.
The Forks of the Kern is an advanced river run. On top of stout class IV and V whitewater, there are very few flat-water sections as well as numerous unnamed class II and III rapids. Due to the remoteness, this run isn’t seen as often as other sections of the Kern which means new hazards can appear that are otherwise unlisted; trees can appear, new strainers can form, and on some occasions entire rapids have been known to shift. Pay attention, and always go with someone that has recent Forks experience.
Obtaining a Forks of the Kern permit is different than getting a Lower or Upper permit. Technically, it is a lottery system, allowing one group to launch per day of up to 15 people. However, there are many days where no one has applied for a permit and you can get one by calling the Forest Service. These walk in/call in permits are available after May 15, on a first come, first served basis. Please see this webpage for more information.
About the guide
All data points were collected using GPS. This location information is provided. These locations were checked against Google Earth for accuracy.
Some rapids or point of interests include a Learn More link. Opening this link will provide additional details such as rapid photos, videos, GPS coordinates, and other relevant information. If there is no additional information link, then the GPS coordinates are provided.
Forks of the Kern River Map & Guide
Class III Rapid
Class III rapid or river feature.
Class IV Rapid
Class IV rapid or river feature.
Class V Rapid
Class V rapid or river feature.
Put-In / Take-Out
Used at the Forks trail head and Johnsondale Bridge
Point of Interest
These include creeks, side hikes, and cabins
Common camping locations
Forks Island to Johnsondale Bridge – Class III, IV and V
There is only one run on the Forks of the Kern, starting at the Forks Island. Technically, the run ends at Johnsondale Bridge, however, if you’re using rafts it is best to run the Class IV Limestone section of the Upper Kern down to Willow Point for a much easier take out.
Forks of the Kern Trailhead: 36.13857, -118.45174 The put in is down a 2 mile trail starting at the Forks of the Kern trail head at the end of state road 20S67 and ending at “the island” where the Little Kern and North Fork converge.
Mile 0.0 – Little Kern Confluence Put-in: 36.13349, -118.43729 The put in is down a 2 mile trail starting at the Forks of the Kern trail head at the end of state road 20S67 and ending at “the island” where the Little Kern and North Fork converge.
Mile 0.71 – Walking Tall Rapid: 36.12765, -118.44364 Class III. Run straight down the middle. Watch out for a ledge on river right at lower flows.
Mile 2.83 – Freeman Creek: 36.10843, -118.45581 About 100 yards up the creek is a scenic waterfall and swimming hole. Also allows an opportunity to scout the first Class IV below.
Mile 2.85 – Upper Freeman Rapid: 36.10822, -118.45586 Class IV. Good route far right.
Mile 3.00 – Lower Freeman Rapid: 36.10634, -118.45722 Class IV-V. Scout this rapid on river left. The normal run starts on river left and cuts right. Push hard to get close to the far shore at the apex of the river bend. Often, paddle boats go for an upstream spin as they come around the turn, and paddle hard with an upstream right angle to get away from the “gnarnia hole” at the bottom of the rapid on river right. This hole flips more boats than any other one on the river. There is about 50 meters of slow moving water and opportunities to set safety for the rapid downstream on river left.
Mile 3.45 – Wrapid Rapid: 36.1003, -118.45667 Class IV. Giant S-turn with wrap rocks. Cut hard behind the large boulder to avoid wrap rocks on river left.
Mile 4.45 – Needlerock Rapid: 36.08921, -118.46543 Class IV. Normal line is a steep and narrow far right chute. Maintain a left-angle and momentum to avoid getting slammed into the river right wall.
Mile 4.54 – Needlerock Camp: 36.08853, -118.46642 River left just below the rapid. This is a beautiful campsite with a fire pit, plenty of flat space, and unbeatable views of Needlerock Falls and the Needles themselves. Hike upstream until you reach a large boulder that has the best view.
Mile 4.57 – Downhill Rapid: 36.08821, -118.46684 Class IV. Long, and fun rapid. Make your way to river right to avoid the bottom hole that is big at medium to high flows that’s located left and center.
Mile 4.74 – Slalom Rapid: 36.08603, -118.46809 Class IV. Long, and fun rapid. The run starts on river right and moves left before cutting bac to river right to avoid the bottom hole that is big at medium to high flows that’s located left and center.
Mile 6.57 – View Camp: 36.06539, -118.46668 Large, flat campground with gorgeous views of the Needles.
Mile 6.83 – Durwood Wall: 36.06183, -118.46565 Class III. Run from river left to river right. Watch out for wild boil lines that push off the wall at the bottom of the rapid.
Mile 6.93 – Durrwood Creek: 36.06104, -118.46681 Spring-fed creek that flows into the Kern River.
Mile 7.12 – Durwood Lodge Camp: 36.05918, -118.46875 Durwood Lodge campground is a large campsite with remnants of an old lodge to explore. This is the most popular halfway point campsite on the Forks. There are permanent tables and a fire pit to enjoy.
Mile 7.15 – Durwood Rapid: 36.05887, -118.46864 Class III. The normal line is on river right.
Mile 8.07 – Peppermint Creek: 36.04768, -118.46729 Hike away from the river via the trail upstream of Peppermint Creek. The waterfall is very scenic and you can climb underneath it. Be careful though, it is very slippery.
Mile 8.58 – Little Bean Rapid: 36.04093, -118.47021 Class IV. Enter on the left side of the rapid, just to the right of the tree island. Get leftwards momentum to cut across the rapid and avoid the “bean” in the center of the river that is notorious for sending people swimming into the calm pool below.
Mile 8.69 – Big Bean Rapid: 36.03987, -118.47135 Class IV. Start in the middle of the river and cut left to set up for the main drop. Look for the “pyramid rock” that is in the center of the river and marks the top of the drop. Take the drop just to the left of the pyramid rock with a left angle and momentum. Move to river right after the drop to avoid rocks and holes in the center of the river.
Mile 9.05 – Bridgework Rapid: 36.03527, -118.47183 Class III. The rapid is on the left side of the island in the middle of the river. Hug the island as you make your way down the right side of the left channel.
Mile 9.51 – Vortex Rapid: 36.02926, -118.46967 Class V+. Mandatory scout on river right 100 yards above the rapid. This rapid is portaged frequently on river left by pulling the rafts up and over a rock pile and starting in a pool just below the rapid. You can scout the approach to the portage on river right. At most flows the center drop of Vortex creates a massive, recirculating hydraulic with boil lines over 10 ft out. The normal run starts far on river right, and depending on the flows, exits far right, or cuts across the river to a left exit. Only run this rapid with extremely experienced boaters, and with thorough safety set up throughout.
Mile 9.59 – Gortex Rapid: 36.02836, -118.46914 Class IV. This rapid begins just below Vortex. The Goretex hole is a large hole on river left. At most flows, rafters “sneak” Goretex via a boat width slot on river right. This is because of the extremely limited recovery time between Goretex and the Gauntlet. If you have portaged Vortex, ferry hard to get to river right when coming out of the pool to avoid running Goretex, and to avoid a large hole just downstream of the portage eddy on river left.
Mile 9.71 – Gauntlet Rapid: 36.02742, -118.46763 Class IV+.This rapid can be scouted on river left via a long walk from the Vortex portage eddy. The walk takes about 10 minutes each way and involves some scrambling. At high flows it is possible to avoid the “Hawaii Five-0” hole by running on the right side of the rapid before cutting left below the main center holes. If you run the top “Hawaii Five-0” hole, do so with a left angle to try to get to the left of the massive holes in the middle of the rapid. Run these straight on if you need to. Watch out for a log-sieve two thirds of the way down the rapid on river right.
Mile 10.15 – The Maze Rapid: 36.02244, -118.46586 Class IV. Take the top drop on river right and make your way behind the big boulder in the center of the river. Cut left right behind the boulder.
Mile 10.68 – Four Mile Trail (terminus): 36.01664, -118.46822 This trail, as the name indicates, is a four mile trail that starts at Johnsondale Bridge (takeout) and runs alongside the river and ends at this point.
Mile 10.71 – Four Mile Rapid: 36.01611, -118.46825 Class IV. Start in the middle, cut left to avoid holes at the top, and then cut right hard across the river to get just to the right of the large boulder at the bottom center of the rapid.
Mile 10.91 – Rincon Rapid: 36.01382, -118.47033 Class IV. Drop in with a right angle just to the left of the large boulder above a wide, retentive hole.
Mile 11.11 – Metamorphosis Rapid: 36.01223, -118.47263 Class IV. This is a very technical rapid best run by cutting from river right to river left through the boulder field.
Mile 11.41 – Basalt Rapid: 36.00885, -118.47644 Class IV. This run starts on river left, and then cuts back to the center of the river. Take the main drop just to the right of a large boulder in the middle of the river. Watch out for nub rocks sticking out just above the main drop.
Mile 12.21 – Chaos Rapid: 35.99934, -118.47916 Class IV. This rapid leads into Confusion, and many people think of it as one long rapid. Both rapids can be scouted from river left along the Four Mile Trail. The run winds around holes between river right and the center of the river before cutting hard to river left after hitting a big hole on river right just to the right of a large boulder. There is a small “scout eddy” that it is possible to catch on river left before Confusion.
Mile 12.31 – Confusion Rapid: 35.99825, -118.48097 Class V. The run starts on river left and cuts back to river right above the main drop. In line with the final drop is a protruding boulder on river left known as the “whale tail.” The “whale tail” is a sieve, and is absolutely to be avoided by running on river right. Above the final drop is a large hole known as the “catchers mitt”. A normal line is to drop in just to the left of a ledge on river right and cut right to ride an eddy line to the right of the “catchers mitt”. This sets you up to get a left angle and get momentum going over the final drop. At high flows it is possible to take a raft over the ledge and straight into the eddy above the final drop. Make sure you get enough momentum, as the ledge drop can surf boats. It is important to get out of the top of the eddy, even catching a corner of the “catchers mitt” to ensure that boats don’t run up on the rock that forms the right side of the final drop. Be very careful to avoid the large “dice rock” boulder just below the final drop. The boulder is undercut and very dangerous.
Mile 12.71 – Dry Meadow Creek: 35.99314, -118.48241 This creek runs into the river and allows access to the Seven Teacups. Be ready for a steep climb along the right side (perspective from the Kern) of Dry Meadow to get outstanding views of waterfalls. Note that this hike is not for the faint of heart. The thirty foot slide that enters the Kern is an excellent natural waterslide and ends in a calm pool.
Mile 13.31 – Respect Rapid: 35.98554, -118.48096 Class IV. There are two rapids that look very similar to Respect. The actual Respect rapid is the second of the two. Start in the center-right of the river and get a left angle to cut just behind the boulder in the middle. There is a large, boat surfing hole, just downstream of the boulder.
Mile 13.61 – Maytag Rapid: 35.98181, -118.4829 Class IV. This rapid starts just left of center, and cuts to river left to avoid the large “Maytag Hole” at the bottom of the rapid.
Mile 14.01 – Carson Falls Rapid: 35.97631, -118.48687 Class V. This rapid can be scouted on river left. The leadup to the falls is class III, but it is very important to run it cleanly. The normal run starts in the middle of the river and then cuts left to avoid several holes in the leadup to the main drop. At flows above 2500 it is possible to sneak the entire approach on river right. There is an eddy just above the final drop on river right that it is possible to catch to set up safety and do a last minute scout. A common kayaking line is on the far right side of the drop. For rafts, at flows above 800CFS it is best to go over the middle of the drop with strong right to left momentum. There is a rock on the left side of the main drop, and a normal line will often get the left tube of a raft as close to as possible the right side of the boulder while going over the final drop. It is possible to set safety downstream on either side of the rapid. It is crucial that paddlers start to forward paddle as soon as you hit the water after the drop to avoid getting tube sucked back into the hole. At flows above 2,000 CFS a large hole called “The Thing” emerges on river right just below the main drop. This feature flips more boats than the falls itself at high water so getting leftward momentum is crucial.
Mile 14.71 – Johnsondale Bridge Take Out: 35.96871, -118.4867 There is a steep concrete ramp to get back to the parking lot where takeout cars are parked. Consider moving cars to the Limestone takeout and enjoy a couple more miles of whitewater and an easier takeout.