Los Angeles is an audacious city that breeds a love/hate relationship. One of the best ways to keep the hate side in check is to get away whenever possible. For concrete jungle dwellers, this means trees, wildlife, and maybe even a river that doesn’t look like a flooded freeway.
People might not know that in under three hours, you can be camping along a rushing river slicing through mountains and some of the most famous forests in the country. Camping on the Kern River is a popular Los Angeles escape because of the convenience, low cost, and the quick contrast between the bustle of Tinseltown and the beauty of Sequoia National Forest.
Kern River camping vacations can go in a few different directions. You can pump the adrenaline up with activities like river rafting or mountain biking, or you can take take the relaxation route with fishing, hiking, or straight up napping over the flowing river — a perfect white-noise maker. The Kern River runs about 165 miles long, draining a portion of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Nearly all of the river is publicly accessible, so there’s a good chance of finding a perfect spot for whatever you plan on doing on your camping trip.
Many people prefer the North Fork of the Kern River. That’s where you’ll find most of the campgrounds, trails, public access points, and it’s slightly easier to navigate to from Los Angeles. There’s a long list of fun things to do on Kern River, but some require or suggest guides and significant research before taking part. It’s important to take some extra time to consider that what makes the Kern River so appealing, is also what can make it difficult, or even dangerous.
Snowmelt feeds the Kern River and is sourced from places around Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet. So as you can imagine, early spring Kern River camping will offer the most intense river experiences. The rapids will be at their peak, and the water will be colder. Luckily, the river flows year-round, and Los Angeles residents know this isn’t always a given for Southern California rivers. However, most campgrounds are only open during the summer months, with a few year-round options. Your best bet for ideal conditions for most-to-all activities would be late spring through late summer.
Raft, Kayak, or Tube the Rapids
One of the most popular Kern River activities is whitewater rafting. However, the Kern River is no joke. Unless you’re a seasoned veteran of high-class rapids, you’ll need a guide for any activity that involves floating through rapids. That even includes tubing and kayaking. There are a few spots along the river with decently long stretches that do NOT encounter intense rapids, but you need to consult with a guide, or your campground managers before taking those on yourself to make sure you stay in the right area, or in case conditions have changed. If you’re not sure about the experience, hangout near some of the rapids that you can see from day-use areas or near your campsite, and watch as guided groups come through. You’ll learn really quickly whether or not it’s something you’re up for trying.
Fish for Trout
Open for fishing year-round, the Kern River is an excellent place for catching trout. Species like California Heritage Native, Little Kern Golden, Kern River Rainbow, and Eagle Lake Trout can all be found on the river. You can also catch carp, hitch, channel catfish, largemouth bass, and crappie. Fly fishing guides are recommended and available around the area. There are also some accessible sites along the river that are best for fishing, like Kennedy Meadows, Riverkern Beach, Paradise Cove, and Democrat Picnic Area. You’ll have the best luck with in 50 miles of Isabella Lake, and some riverside campground sites do just as well.
Leap From Alligator Rock
For cannonball junkies, Alligator Rock is superb. It’s close to Isabella Lake, and the popular Limestone Campground. The rock looks like an ominous prehistoric creature sticking its head out of the river. There are usually red eyes painted on the rock for added effect. The water is calm and deep enough for feet-first jumping, but obviously, ask some locals or people familiar with the area before pursuing.
Climb “The Needles”
Massive granite rock formations called “The Needles” rise up near the junction of the North Fork of the Kern River and the Little Kern River. Climbers from all over the world come to this location to experience Yosemite-like rock climbing but without the crowds. You’ll also find plenty of bouldering or canyoneering spots in the area. Guidebooks are available online or at some outfitter stores in the area.
Bomb Down Kernville’s Cannell Plunge Trail
Near Kernville, you’ll actually find an incredibly extensive and well-maintained mountain bike trail system. With the popularity of the river activities, mountain biking takes a backseat. However, the Kernville area is a true hub for mountain bikers seeking all levels of action. The Kernville Cannell Plunge Trail boasts 32 miles of singletrack, including a section that drops 5,000 feet in only eight miles. So sit back and let ‘er rip, it’s the real deal for downhill thrill-seeking bikers.
Try Windsurfing on Lake Isabella
The Kern River feeds into Lake Isabella located south of the national forest. It’s one of the first big outdoor adventures spots you’ll hit as you drive up the mountain from Los Angeles. There’s always wind on Lake Isabella, but if there happens to be a steady south wind, it’s time to get on the water. Kiteboards and windsurfers flock to Lake Isabella when the conditions are right. The best spot for consistent wind is located near the Auxiliary Dam in the town of Lake Isabella. It’s downwind from the Old Isabella Recreation Site, which requires a U.S. Forest Service recreation day pass.
With a large collection of traditional national forest campgrounds, comfortable private RV resorts, and some great dispersed camping, it’s a must to do some research before hitting the road from Los Angeles. Some quick overall Kern River camping notes; if you’re going to camp dispersed, you have to camp at least 25 feet from the river, you need a campfire permit in most cases, and dogs are allowed throughout the national forest as long as they are on a leash. Here’s a breakdown of some of the best options for Kern River camping.
At 3,800 feet along the Upper Kern River, speckled with oak trees and gray pines, Limestone Campground is always a good option. It’s only 19 miles from Kernville, a town that offers the staples for whatever you need on your trip, plus the popular Kern River Brewery. It’s really the main hub for Kern River camping adventures.
Limestone Campground has 22 sites, accepts RVs up to 30 feet long, but has no drinking water or electricity, and you need to pack out your trash. Picnic tables and toilets are available, and sites can be reserved in advance. The campground is part of the Sequoia National Forest and is open from April through October.
“Pretty hefty on the fee at almost $30 a night, but trust me this place is worth it. Lots of trees to make shady spots. The lower camp spots are located at the bottom of the hill (easier access to the river, safer for children). The higher spots are up the hill with a magnificent view of the raging Kern River. There is a few private “beach” spots where you can enjoy the river without the intimidating rapids. Probably one of the best campgrounds in Kernville! One of the most fun trip I’ve ever had in my life!” — The Dyrt camper Jen D.
If you’re open to driving a few miles further on your Kern River camping getaway from Los Angeles, Lower Peppermint Campground is a great, traditional campground with everything you need, and nothing you don’t. It’s 32 miles from Kernville, has 17 sites, and can accommodate RVs up to 16 feet. It’s part of the national forest, and offers sanitary facilities, portable water, tables, and fire rings.
Lower Peppermint Campground is exactly what you’d expect from a classic, lesser visited developed campground within the national forest. Sites are not reservable, but the distance from nearby towns keeps the usage light. At an elevation of 5,200 feet, you’ll really feel like you’re mountain camping, with the added bonus of being located near the Kern River.
“My husband and I came here based on a recommendation. We took a campsite on the inside of the loop, had neighbors that we could see so if you’re looking for more privacy, pick one on the outside of the loop. Rangers stopped by, issued us a fire permit, real nice guy. Make sure you find the famous slides when you go! Granite water slides with little pools at the bottom of each one” — The Dyrt camper Kaitlyn M.
Located just about 15 miles from Kernville, Brush Creek Dispersed Camping offers a different option than Limestone, or other popular, more developed campgrounds. Camping is free and can be done anywhere as long as you’re 25 feet from the water. There’s a parking area where some people bring RVs or camper trailers, but to really take advantage of this spot, you need to have a tent and be willing to walk around for a few minutes to find a good site.
No water or electricity, but they do have vault toilets and seasonal trash bins. It’s also a day-use area, so you might see some people here using it as access to the river, but it will quiet down considerably at night. Overall the usage of this camping area is very light.
“This is our favorite campground in the Sequoia National Forest, of the four we’ve stayed in. There are some beautiful spots high up on a bank overlooking the stream. A quick walk down to the stream allows for refreshing dips whenever you want.” — The Dyrt camper Leslie R.
Rivernook Campground is the largest privately owned campground on the Kern River. This is the antithesis to the other campgrounds featured so far. Full-to-partial RV hookup sites, cable, WiFi, remodeled restrooms, showers, onsite store, and on-site dump station. It’s located on a beautiful, relatively calm section of the Kern River. The campground is 60-acres, with plenty of tranquil space for everyone. This is your relaxation location, without having to completely unplug from the world. They also offer RV trailer rentals and will set up the trailer for you on your site.
“Watched rafters and kayakers go by. Dog friendly. My lab went swimming everyday. There is also a creek that runs through the campground. Lots of nearby hiking. Lake Isabella is close as well. The town of Kernville is 2 minutes away with anything you might need!” — The Dyrt camper Jennifer S.
Another good option for convenience camping is Camp Kernville. If you’re looking to escape Los Angeles with a family that is ready for adventure, but needs the standard modern amenities, this is a great spot. In addition to free wi-fi, modern restrooms and showers, laundry, and RV rentals & storage, they also have a pet area and a 1,000-foot private beach on Kern River. Their unique attention to the needs of families is noticeable throughout the grounds, plus it’s located right in Kernville. Reservations are accepted.
“We took our RV here and had a great time. We brought our dog and some family members with us. I like the free air they provide for you to be able to fill the tubes.” — The Dyrt camper Danielle L.
Heads up, glamper RV campers! Kern River Sequoia RV Resort at Camp James is for campers looking to get into nature, comfortably. It’s located in Kernville, and offers everything from rustic water only tent sites, to “glamping styled” full hook up sites, to luxurious cabins. All the modern amenities you didn’t know you needed, plus easy access to a beautiful rushing part of the Kern River. It’s a great fishing spot, plus it’s close to Lake Isabella. You will pay a little more money here, but if this is your jam, it’s the place for comfortable Kern River camping.
“Nice clean small campground. Book way in advance though. Really close to town. Take a ride down the river in your tube and walk back. So much fun!” — The Dyrt camper Johnny P.
Chris Loud has several years of experience as a travel and fiction writer. In the last year, he has been co-producing a quarterly print and digital literary lifestyle publication called The Boardman Review, based in northern Michigan. Before that, he spent a few years producing and writing for the travel TV shows Coolest Places on Earth, State to State, and Great Escapes. Chris currently lives in Traverse City, Michigan with his wife, daughter, and dog.
This article originally was published on The Dyrt