Forks of the Kern
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Forks of the Kern River Rafting Guide
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.
This guide was written by Kern River Outfitters. Kern River Outfitters runs half, full, and two-day trips on the Upper, Lower, and Forks of the Kern. They have more five star reviews than any other rafting company in California. Learn more about them here.
About The Forks of the Kern
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, typically a day trip, commonly referred to as a “bullet run.” 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.
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.
Forks of the Kern Permits
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.
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.
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.
Johnsondale Bridge to Willow Point – Class II, III & IV
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. Those rapids are summarized below, but their in-depth descriptions are available on the Upper Kern guide page.