In the 1850s a mad rush of would-be prospectors came in droves to the small mountain towns of California for get-rich-quick opportunities during the Gold Rush. Whiskey Flat, later renamed Kernville, was one of those towns.
Old Kernville now sits at the bottom of Lake Isabella, although when the water is low enough some of the original structures’ foundations can still be seen. But before the government built the dam that would create the man-made lake, which would cover Old Kernville, the town served as the mountain retreat of Hollywood’s greatest Western stars.
During Hollywood’s golden age, episodes of the television show “Bonanza” were filmed here, as was “The Outlaw,” starring Jane Russell and parts of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” with Humphrey Bogart. Multiple John Wayne and Roy Rogers films were also shot here.
The stagecoach that Wayne drove in the 1939 film “Stagecoach” can now be viewed at the Kern Valley Museum, along with a room filled with old Hollywood memorabilia and mining and ranching artifacts, plus local Native American relics.
Before the old town flooded in 1953, many businesses were moved to Kernville’s new location upriver. The Riverview Lodge (previously the Mountain Inn and Sierra South Lodge) is one of the structures that has experienced the two lives of Kernville. Bogart and Lauren Bacall once stayed here, as did numerous other stars of the day.
What does it offer?
The Kern River is known more now for its whitewater rapids than for its big Hollywood appeal, making it a vacation hot spot for river rafting tours. Adventurers young and old, from around the world, come here to experience Class 1-3 rapids on the popular stretch of Upper Kern, which runs through local campgrounds and the center of town. Intermediate rafters can plan overnight trips on the Lower Kern, Class 3-4 rapids, and three-day Class 5 trips on the Forks of the Kern are for advanced rafters only.
Many of the tour companies offer single (1-2 hours) or double (1/2 day) run trips and allow kids over six years old to participate. All rafting trips begin with an overview of the run, the paddle gear, and what to expect while on a rapid.
Kayaking trips and lessons are also available. Sierra South starts their three-day lesson on the flat surface of Lake Isabella, where beginners can learn all the essential kayaking basics, such as self-rescue and the Eskimo roll, without having to worry about floating down river.
Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUP) have gained more and more attention in recent years and adventure seekers who travel to Kernville have taken to challenging the rapids. But with Isabella so nearby, a casual exploration of the lakeside landscape from a SUP is also a nice way to spend a few hours.
Watersports aren’t the only activities in Kernville. The surrounding mountainous terrain lends itself to numerous mountain biking trails for beginners through advanced. Mountain & River Adventures offers group mountain biking trips, starting with a half-day jam or sunset cruise 17-mile expedition. Rock climbing is another outdoor activity available through this company.
The Kern River is also perfect as a relaxing getaway. Many come up for the fishing. In less populated areas of the river, where prize California golden trout and monster brown trout swim free, fly fishing is the sport of choice. Closer to town, where rafters and inner-tube floaters pass by with regularity, reel fishing for native rainbow trout can prove just as much fun and is perfect for the kids.
During the winter months, Alta Sierra Ski Resort attracts winter sports enthusiasts. A short distance drive from Kernville, this small resort has a box of a warming hut in place of a lodge, one and a half lifts, and eight trails, so it might not feel like much of anything for advanced skiers. But it’s enough for novice skiers and families and it’s the perfect place for little ones to learn how to ski. Friday visitors received discounted packages, which include a one-hour lesson, equipment rental and lift tickets.
A year-round activity that’s good for the body and gets the heart pumping is hiking. With temperatures rising above 100 degrees during mid-summer, local hiking trails are best trekked in the cooler months.
At an elevation of 6,400 feet, Trail of 100 Giants covers more than 300 acres of forest with giant redwood sequoias, some that are over 1,500 years old. In recent years, the county has added upward of $1 million in upgrades at many of the tourist locations, including this trail, which now has a raised boardwalk that’s wheelchair accessible. The road leading to Trail of 100 Giants is only open during the warmer months, so those interested in catching the contrasting red trees against a white blanket of snow will have to use snowmobiles to get there.
There’s gold in them there hills, or at least there used to be. Still, recreational prospectors head to the mining district of Keyesville, about 20 minutes by car from Kernville, for some good old-fashioned panning for gold.
For those who believe in the kind of paranormal activity seen in the BIO’s “My Ghost Stories” and online in “Haunted Discoveries,” Silver City Ghost Town in Bodfish, which has been featured on these shows, is a site to see. The privately-owned town is made up of old buildings, including a jail cell and saloon, which were moved here from the former Whiskey Flat neighborhood and other Kern River Valley cities. Previous visitors have captured images of silhouettes and orbs in photos taken on the property, an indication that the spirits of the valley’s past have remained in these dilapidated structures.
When should you go?
As it is with most popular watersport towns, the busiest time of year is summer. That doesn’t mean summer is the only time nature lovers should consider visiting. Unlike some mountain locales that practically shut down during the low travel seasons, Kernville offers year-round events and respite from big city life.
Every February, during Presidents’ Day weekend, the Whiskey Flat Days festival takes place. More than 50,000 people have shown up for the annual four-day event, which brings Wild West history to life with authentic 19th century encampments and re-enactments, such as the mountain man camp with demonstrations reflecting the fur trade era and ax throwing shows. There’s also a Native American camp with arts, crafts and food for sale, and for entertainment there’s a live drum circle, dancing and singing. In town, the parade and rodeo are the big attractions, but the frog jumping contest is hilarious fun and the offerings of a carnival and live music are simply good for the soul.
Whitewater rafting tours generally run from late March through Labor Day weekend, however depending on water levels—California is experiencing a serious drought and levels are lower than usual—Class 4-5 rapids may have a much shorter season. Interested in experiencing the more advanced rapids? Be sure to call rafting companies prior to booking a trip.
Every September, blues music lovers enjoy the Kern River Rock N Blues Festival that takes place at Frandy Park Campground. This annual fundraiser was put together to assist in the construction of a national veterans’ cemetery in Bakersfield, so it’s not only here for a good time, but also a good cause.
The last weekend in October visitors can expect another type of Whisky Flat celebration at the fall festival, which has hay rides, a petting zoo, a haunted maze and cowboy re-enactments.
Come winter, cold-weather sports enthusiasts enjoy snowboarding and skiing at the small Alta Sierra Ski Resort, cross country skiing on the mountainside, or taking a family friendly snow-shoe shuffle tour.
Where should you stay?
Surrounded by forest trees and nestled just above the river, Whispering Pines Lodge offers a secluded, romantic appeal, plus it’s within walking distance of town. While the rooms are somewhat outdated now, this is where Barbra Streisand and James Brolin are said to have spent their honeymoon.
Situated in the small town of Kernville is the Kern River Inn Bed & Breakfast, which has seen some recent renovations. The B&B sits directly across from a park and has both river and mountain views, and some rooms have stone fireplaces. With only five suites available, this cozy cottage can fill up quickly, so early reservations are recommended during high tourist season.
Since Kernville is a mountain town, many visitors find that camping better compliments the area’s natural surroundings. Camp James is good for trailers and RVs, as well as tent camping, and offers free park Wi-Fi, bathrooms with hot showers, electrical and water hookups, cable TV access, and an on-site shop with firewood, sodas, snacks and ice cream. Plus, it’s very near town.
For more information on lodging in the Kern River area, visit the Kern County tourism website.
How do you get there?
While the Kern Valley Airport services small private planes, Kernville is only a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles, to the northeast of Bakersfield, in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The quickest way to go is through the Grapevine portion of the I-5 Freeway, then north on Highway 99, to the 178 east toward Lake Isabella, and on to Highway 155 to Kernville.
If coming from the San Francisco area, the Northern California Highway leads to Hwy 99, and the directions from there are the same as coming from LA.
The road through the canyon is small and winding, so larger campers and RVs are restricted from this route. There is a back way, however, through Mojave, if traveling by car from LA.
During the fall, be sure to make a stop in Tehachapi to visit an apple orchard. Pulford’s Appletree Orchard offers apple tastings and at Knaus Apple Ranch, guests can pick their own apples from the tree, purchase fresh baked goods, and buy a box of apple wood—when the wood burns, a scent of apples fills the air.
Join me on Twitter: