Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains
Tahoe National Forest
North Gold Country @ Historic Highway 49
Historic ‘gold rush’ mining camps and towns line this popular recreation river in the Northern Sierra. Numerous State Parks, museums, and campgrounds can be found along this route, in which Tahoe National Forest land encompasses the whole region.
North fork of the Yuba River lines Historic Highway 49, on the way to Downieville and Sierra City, CA. Plenty of camping in these parts. Lakes Basin Recreation Area is located up behind the impressive granite spires called Sierra Buttes and this area is the headwaters for this portion of the river.
Middle fork of the Yuba River cuts through the residential mountain community on Moonshine Road, and ends up in Lake Bullards Bar; The rest of the middle fork flows through remote forest lands and is only crossed by one dirt road #191 in Tahoe NF.
South fork of the Yuba River flows from the far heights of Donner Pass and I-80; near Lake Spaulding. Passing Washington Ridge; northeast of Nevada City; and North Bloomfield @ Malakoff Diggins continuing down to Bridgeport @ South YUBA – where the longest wooden, covered bridge is located. Numerous old, one-lane bridges cross this southern fork of the river, and the region can take years to explore. Lots of residential and private properties.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a campground way back here, the CHEAPEST CAMP around; Look for signs, along the dusty North Bloomfield Rd (graded dirt road) about a mile UP hill from rickety Edwards Crossing (pictured below).
South Yuba State Park, located along the Golden Chain Hwy 49, is a short drive up Hwy 4 from Nevada City and a very popular spot for sightseeing, day hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and riverside picnics. The parking lot at the large curved bridge fills up fast, daily. Pedestrians and hikers are always seen here, so slow down driving along this portion of the highway.
The big river forks all join west of Grass Valley, heading down the mountains, paralleling Hwy 20 to Marysville, CA
The historic river town of Sierra City is defined by the North Yuba River that cuts through the granite, forested canyon. Granite towers above and snow is around more than half the year.
The river is free-running up here; Sierra City is only about 10 miles below the headwaters of the Yuba, at Lakes Basin Gold Lake California. In spring, runoff is pure Class 5 whitewater. Wild Plum Campground is walking distance to town.
Free primitive camping on dirt roads, can be found way up near the Bassetts intersection. Opposite from Gold Lake Hwy – turn RIGHT (south) on to logging roads: Forest Rd #54 (long ridge route, all dirt) and club into the forest. Drive a several miles up to any large dirt pulls out. Passenger car accessible road; No low riders. Carry a good forest map. Many primitive camp spots have wide openings with views of the Sierra Buttes and crystal clear night skies. Wind can get bad on this mountain ridge, so pick your camp spot with that in mind.
Epic view camp – or expensive river camp? (you choose). Campfire permit are required for camping outside of developed campgrounds. Bring your own water and shovel!
Northern California’s impressive Feather River Watershed is massive and drains the lower half of snowy Mount Lassen @ 10,457′ elevation. The Plumas National Forest and Lassen Forest region is where the Sierra Nevada granite meets the volcanic rock of the Cascade mountain range.
In most recent times, 2017 was the wettest year on record for California. The Feather River Watershed recorded more water than any other year, based on 112 years of hydrology records.
West Branch (Paradise, CA) North Feather (Hwy 70 Beldon) Middle Feather (Berry Creek, CA) South Feather (LaPorte, CA)
Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains meet the Cascade Range @ Lassen
The North Feather runs along Highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon with railways, tunnels and trestles traversing the giant gorge. This granite lined canyon is known as the “stairway to power” – water flows stepping down the mountain from numerous reservoirs. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) operate a series of 9 power plants all interconnected – producing electric power (and in rare occasions, wildfires)
The East Branch of the North Feather River comes out of the American Valley near Quincy, CA
The West Branch of the North Feather River flows south down from “the ridge” – a forested, volcanic ridge line descending from Mount Lassen. West branch flows directly into Lake Oroville at Lime Saddle (Marina). This residential area is currently off limits to tourists, as it recovers from the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history. The 2018 #CampFire destroyed most of the town and forests of Paradise, Lake Concow, and Yankee Hill. The incident made national news in November, as the worst wildfire season dragged well into autumn.
The South Fork of the Feather River and its reservoirs, are managed by the South Feather Power Project, consisting of 5 lakes, 4 power plants, and 3 diversion dams. The closest paved road to this region would be La Porte Road, off of Highway 70 between Gridley & Marysville, CA
The Middle Feather, or Middle Fork of the Feather, is a beautiful wild and scenic river for 78 miles, with granite walls, domes and few trails or roads. Only 2 campgrounds – Milsap Bar and Little North Fork, are well worth the journey.
EAST PLUMAS CO. Above the lumber & rail town of Quincy, Lake Davis and Frenchman Reservoir are both managed by the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Excellent mountain biking, stargazing and camping at both locations. NFS Campgrounds w/ fee.
North Sierra Waters:
via OROVILLE Reservoir Lake Oroville
All this water listed above is the massive Feather River Watershed. Like a thousand fine hairs that make up a bird feather, there are over 4,500 miles of mountain streams and rivers feeding the bigger Reservoir system below. Dam run by DWR (Department of Water and Power) at the State Recreation Area known as Lake Oroville SRA
Feather River has always been prone to flooding and wild river swings. All that Mount Lassen snowmelt needs to be managed in harmony with one another, so destructive floods do not ruin the agriculture and cities of the valley. Lake Oroville is the place; they try to control these river flows that are headed down to the Sacramento Valley. Oroville Dam was built in 1967. In 2017, a record rainfall winter in California, the Oroville dam showed major signs of stress with massive amounts of incoming water. Several recently published books tell the story in greater detail.
Below Lake Oroville, 2 giant warming ponds Thermalito Forebay & Thermalito Afterbay – built to control irrigation water and also heat the cold river water for the fish downstream
CA SR 162 – West Highway 162: the farming and residential areas of Thermalito & Biggs are held together by rock levees, all running right next to Highway 99. Diversion drainage leads out of Lake Orovillle above to the large inland bays – with river parks and salmon fish hatchery in historic, downtown Oroville. Wildlife viewing , kayaking, boating, fishing. Minimal camping at this area. Big rigs may be seen parked along this stretch of highway, due to its proximity to Hwy 99
Grand-eous ideas, from white men who conquered this land. The scouts on horseback mapped the canyons w/ primitive tools; the with dynamite and danger, they built a railroad through in 1850.
Hydro-electric power systems on the Feather, were constructed between 1908-1961. Native lands and tribal communities have been treated as sacrifice zones for national priorities of irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric development.
Recent upgrades to Oroville Dam have been completed, although a lot of work still goes on around the Feather region due to wildfire debris, tree trimming, fire clearance, upgrades to power lines, and structural improvements.
Hiking trails, dirt roads and highways may be re-routed, inaccessible or closed due to construction, landslides, rock slides or utility work. Call local rangers for up to date info.
North of the Giant Sequoia , above the Western Divide Highway (CA 190) sits a little known Sequoia Park called Mountain Home. This lush forested area separates the Sequoia National Park (to the north) from the Giant Sequoia National Monument (to the south).
Mountain Home is just up the mountain from the West Sierra river town of Springville, CA
Western Sierra Nevada
In part of the vast Sequoia National Forest, lies a hidden gem of State Forest land worth visiting. Waterfalls, the Tule River, fishing ponds, campgrounds and easy access to Golden Trout Wilderness trails.
The official name of this forest: Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest is quite a mouth full, so most just call it “Mountain Home”. In short MHDSF is managed by Cal-Fire and the California State Park system.
the Largest old growth Sequoias in the state!
Numerous awesome Campgrounds can be found near the Sequoia groves, the Tule River, hiking trailheads, fishing, waterfalls. Balch Park is the County Park, listed below.
Balch Park Sequoia
located within the Mountain Home State Forest is a popular destination for the locals and families. Balch Park Campground is paved and RV accessible. 71 campsites, on first come basis.
Meadows, mountain peaks, streams, waterfalls, huge granite rocks & cliffs are all over. Plus some secluded groves of Giant Sequoia trees. Mosquitos can be annoying in these parts, so bring the chemical warfare and the screen room tent.
Roads Open: May – October
Forest mountain roads close annually, due to winter snow
Area activities include:
Backpacking Back Road Exploration Campground Camping Fishing Hiking Horseback Riding Meadows Mountain Biking Picnic Sequoia Groves Swimming Holes Tule River (North Fork) Golden Trout Wilderness
USDA Forest Service Map is highly advised for this area. There are many dirt roads & numerous trails. Minimal cell phone signal inside these dense forests and large granite river canyons. GPS even has trouble getting connected, due to the immense canopy of trees.
In the backcountry, tent camping is allowed any place on soil 100 feet from trail or water. No camping on meadows. Ground fires are very allowed with fire permit. Use existing camp site when available. Check with the correct ranger district for all back country camping rules. Wilderness permits are needed for backpackers and horse packers staying overnight in the wilderness area.
Local Ranger Stations:
Sequoia USFS Headquarters
Tule River Ranger District
Mountain Home Backroads
Dirt back roads are so narrow they cannot accommodate the large motorhome or RV traveler. Trucks pulling horse trailers are common, with very few options for a pull-out to pass.
This forested area is filled with old logging roads that lead to lush Sequoia groves & meadows. The whole network of forest roads back here either – loop back to each other, or deal end, often at a trailhead parking area. No roads connect through to any other portion of the Sierra range. Golden Trout Wilderness is a road-less area of the Southern Sierra Nevada.
Signs Not Reflective
The old skool, painted, wooden road signs do not READ well at night, so avoid arriving in the dark.
When it’s dark outside, it is best to STOP: Shut off the vehicle, get out and take a stretch break, find the north star; Get your bearing straight, look at the real map with a flashlight – before driving miles to an unknown destination, just to turn around.
Be very aware of the Forest Service signage, use your trip meter for clocking mileage. Have a good map on hand. See MAP ABOVE. It is very easy to get lost in this forest and you may end up driving for hours, maybe in circles. I swear this intersection looks familiar.
Mountain Home Campgrounds
Balch and Frazier are the two larger, developed campgrounds; all others are smaller camps w/ primitive facilities.
NOTE: all the Campgrounds in this forest now charge an overnight fee for camping. (Decades ago they were free, but not anymore.)
Frasier Mill Campground is spelled w/ a Z (like Frazier)on many printed maps and inside some camping books, but the proper spelling (on a sign at the campground) is actually Frasier w/ an S. This camp is located at the site of an old lumber mill. Meadows, trailheads, picnic areas, parking.
Decent signage leads to smaller, secluded campgrounds and hiking trail heads. Dirt road driving will be required. See BACKROADS (above heading) for tips on back road driving and night time arrivals.
Plenty of trails for horses back in these parts, most of them lead to Golden Trout Wilderness. Watch out for oncoming vehicles with horse trailers!
No primitive camping outside of developed campgrounds. Due to fire dangers around these majestic Sequoia trees. You must camp within the designated campground, or HOOF IT into the the wilderness for backpacking.
Mountain Home Hiking
Numerous trails around each campground area will lead to the waters edge @ Tule River; into the Golden Trout Wilderness (for longer day hikes), along creeks w/ wildflowers, near lush meadows or through Giant Sequoia Groves.
Bikes are limited to existing paved and dirt roads; NO SINGLE TRACK trails for mountain bikers – due to the fragile, shallow roots of Sequoia groves, and the direct access to Wilderness. NO bikes in the Golden Trout Wild!
This is a major river in the Sierra Nevada landscape, as well as in the Gold Rush history of California. Many mining camps, railways, old abandon mines, dirt roads, hiking trails, mountain biking routes, waterfalls and even ancient artifacts can be found on the back roads. The native tribes once heavily populated these river canyons since the location is ideal, half way between the big mountains and the sunny warm valley.
North fork of American River drains most of the Donner Pass region, all along Interstate 80. Indian Creek is a feeder stream coming from Sugar Pine Reservoir. No large reservoirs exist along this American North Fork, although there is a wide section of the river, above Auburn, called the North Fork Lake.
Middle fork of American River comes down from the Granite Cheif Wilderness, next to Lake Tahoe; Foresthill (3225′ elev) is a small mountain community w/ a ranger station; French Meadows Reservoir is way back in there, toward the highest peaks @ 9000′ elevation.
South fork of American River parallels the State Highway 50, which connects Placerville to Lake Tahoe via the Kyburz Pass. Union Valley Reservoir and Ice House Reservoir make up this part of the drainage for abundant snow melt.
The north and middle flows of this river join in Auburn, near the freway @ I-80. The south fork joins the rest downhill in the Central Valley, at Folsom Lake, NW of Sacramento, CA
Auburn Lodging near the American River with numerous unique overnight options closeby. Colfax, the rail-town up the interstate, also has small motels and inns, most are freeway close. Foresthill is a residential area near the Middle Fork of the American River. Placerville, on the South Fork has more hotel choices.
A nice surprise for visitors to Mount Whitney region when they happen upon the Alabama Hills. The cool boulder field lies at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range – next to the town of Lone Pine, on the way up to Whitney Portal.
The infamous area features a drive named “Movie Road” – with historical spots for filming old westerns & cowboy movies. Plenty of television commercials & videos have been filmed here as well. Relatively close to Los Angeles and SoCal.
high desert: elevation 5354′
From the Mojave desert, take Hwy.395 North to the small town of Lone Pine . At the only traffic light in town; turn left up Mt Whitney Portal Road; continue up to boulders. MOVIE ROAD, right turn to start exploring. Mant graded dirt roads and areas to park vehicles.
Edison Lake, Florence Lake, Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake Kaiser Wilderness, Sierra National Forest
The San Joaquin watershed begins way up in the High Sierra, Ansel Adams Wilderness to be exact. Eastern Sierra ranges, up behind Mammoth Mountain peaks called The Minarets, the snow drains westward. Far from the San Joaquin Valley, way above Fresno, CA
Sierra Forest Road #80 is Kaiser Pass Rd. Starting next to China Peak Ski Resort (formerly Sierra Summit) Take the right turn, near Huntington Lake. Kaiser Pass Road is a paved back country road climbing steeply up into the high country.
Sierra National Forest Headquarters
1600 Tollhouse Road
Clovis, CA 93611
WINTER ACCESS: Kaiser Pass is one of the few areas to enjoy snowmobiling trails and hot spring soaking. The distance to the springs is about 25 miles, one way and requires either cross country skis, snow shoes or snow mobile to reach.
SNO MO RENTALS: Snow depth is usually best after the first of the year and last through April. The round trip hot springs (self-guided) excursion can be done w/ a half day rental, but only if you follow some guidelines: Reserve machine @ Rancheria Enterprises, way ahead of time; Pack a lunch and snacks. Arrive early, gear up, get instructions and have a topo map; Be on the trail and traveling, not stopping on side routes, or play in the meadow or sightsee.
Narrow route continues on passing the meadow and goes for many miles. Trail traverses some steep terrain, with curves and cliffs, especially coming down hill to the river & green metal bridge. Parking spot is before bridge on left side. Hike a short distance, across marshy hillside to reach the 2 primitive hot tubs.
Calaveras is a small but popular Sequoia Park in the Gold Rush foothill country of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. Large Sequoia redwood trees, Visitors Center, nature trails, 2 large campgrounds, Stanislaus River access, hiking trailheads and picnic spots. Summer and weekends are usually busy. Plan your visit on weekdays or off-season for less crowds.
Park is open during the winter, but expect rain or snow. Sledding is allowed in the State Park during decent snowfall. Snow chains or 4WD may be needed to reach this location during winter months.
walk-in camp sites for tents only:
North Grove Environmental
Oak Hollow Environmental North
Oak Hollow Environmental South
NFS Camp Sites Nearby
Beaver Creek Campground is located on Beaver Creek, on a dirt back road, way back in there. Past the big river. Just beyond the South Grove trailhead. USDA web site states that this camp is currently closed due to tree hazards. Google Maps has it listed, but the gov web site does not. Call local rangers to find out!
Sourgrass Recreation Area is just north of the State Park. Forest Road #52 will lead to numerous river destinations, camp sites, fishing spots and swimming holes.
Wakalu Hep Yo Campground: Primitive camp; 49 camp sites w/ fee. Pack it in, Pack it out. No garbage services. No reservations. First-come, first-serve. aka Wild River Campground
Big Meadow Campground is a large NFS camp, located right on Highway 4, about 20 miles from Arnold, CA; Large forested camp w/ shade, hiking and fishing closely; North fork of Stanislaus River; Autumn colors in the aspen grove; 68 camp sites, some of which can accommodate RVs. Max length = 27′
Primitive Camp Sites
No primitive camping inside this state park; Campfires are only permitted inside the 2 developed campgrounds.
WALK-IN environmental campsites are available at both of the State Park campgrounds – North Grove & Oak Hollow.
For car camping and free of charge camping spots, you’ll need to exit the park and start your searching on the back roads, in the neighboring Stanislaus National Forest. First, get a good topo map and try to pick several spots worth exploring. Obtain a campfire permit from the USFS ranger station (Arnold, CA)
Driving dirt roads and looking for a primitive camp site should be accomplished during daylight hours. Arriving at night could pose serious problems, like getting lost, encountering wildlife, settling on a poor place to camp or worst, sleep in your car. Always plan for plenty of time and daylight to find a good (free) camp.
Across the Highway (SR 4) from Calaveras State Park a long dirt road ridge line will lead to Railroad Flat – Forest Service Rd#5N23, Summit Level Road
Just north of Calaveras State Park is a paved road worth checking out – Board Crossing Road #52 becomes Forest Service Rd #5N02
State Park has nature trail around Sequoia grove & guided tours in summer. Day hiking trails throughout the park and fishing trails along the river.
Central Sierra Nevada Mountains
Sonora Pass CA 108 / Ebbetts Pass CA 4
Stanislaus National Forest
The Sierra Nevada mountain route that usually closes first and opens last, due to snow and rock slides . Sonora Pass snow is epic, but often unaccessible most of the year. Snow melt can be slow and this route may not open by until mid-summer. (Quite typical on this highway). Check Cal Trans Hwy Reports. Summer and early Autumn is the time to visit this region, so plan accordingly.
This Big Sierra River is so far reaching that it covers areas from two different Wilderness Areas and two Sierra highway systems: Sonora Pass 108 & Ebbetts Pass Hwy 4.
The North Fork of Stanislaus River starts up at Highland Creek (below Highland Lakes) and parallels the Ebbetts Pass pavement westward down the mountain. Numerous lakes and parks along this steep northern fork, all lined with impressive granite rock. Spicer Reservoir, Elephant Rock, Summit Lake, Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Stanislaus National Forest.
Middle Fork of Stanislaus River, overview
Clark Fork flowing from the Dardanelles in Carson Peak Wilderness, become the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Numerous Campgrounds, RV camps, horse camps along Clark Fork Road. California Highway 108 may still have a real old fashioned pay phone at this intersection. Go look.
Kennedy Creek comes in from the south side of the highway and creates Kennedy Meadows, a horse packing ranch; Not to be confused with the Kern Kennedy Meadows, way down south.
Eagle Creek and Kennedy, plus the Clark Fork are the main headwaters to Stanislaus River making up the Middle fork of this river. Traveling southwest thru the forest, with numerous Reservoirs and plenty of campgrounds.
Middle Fork comes together near the Fence Creek Campground @ Hwy 108. Flowing downhill to join Donnell Lake, then 10 miles of ‘really rugged wild river’ down to Beardsley Lake, then to Sand Bar Flat Campground further below, and on towards the county line @ Calaveras.
South Fork Stanislaus, the shortest of the forks, flows down from Pinecrest Lake, Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Then hits Lyons Reservoir (4228′ elev) near the community of Long Barn, CA Italian Bar brings it right down to Historical Gold Camp, Columbia.
Eventually the massive Stanislaus River ends up in the San Joaquin (Central) Valley, like most of the Western Sierra rivers do, growing the food crops for all. California is a huge agriculture state.
Backpacking Big Wilderness
With Wilderness making up the majority of the landscape around these river canyons , there is ample opportunity for day hiking, creek fishing and backpacking adventures. May as well plan for a full week off of work, if you wanna explore in some depth. Many trailheads have small parking lots located on dirt roads, which are usually passenger car accessible.
PCT = The Pacific Crest hiking trail cuts right across the tallest Sierra Nevada mountain pass – Sonora Pass 108 @ 9625′ elev.
Black Bears are common in this region and several areas have bear boxes for proper food storage. If not available, you’ll need a bear canister or learn to properly hang your food in a tree.
Winter closures due to deep snow is common more than half the year up here. Check Cal Trans for highway conditions and w/ local rangers to find out what back roads are open, and which ones are too muddy. 4WD may be needed to reach certain destinations, if snow & mud are still present. Winter SNOW CAN LAST UP HERE: on the peaks all summer long; And snow can start falling as early as October, so know the forecast before you set out on a major backcountry trip.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Stop by a ranger station to get the latest details before your big trek into the woods. USFS web sites are not always so up-to-date. A phone call or personal visit may be needed to get accurate info.
The Wilderness boundaries on each side of the pavement (CA 108) along with giant granite walls, steep cliffs, boulders, wild raging rivers and dense forests make dirt road accessibility somewhat limited along the Sonora Pass Highway. Ebbetts (CA 4) has more dirt road accessibility, especially beyond Beardsley Lake.
County Line Road #6N06 will take you past a developed NFS Camp called Fence Creek Campground. The dirt road climbs into the forest meadows, with 2 trailheads to be found within a few miles. Horse Corral at Wheats Meadow. Numerous primitive campsites for backpackers, car campers, horse campers. Lush meadows, hidden forests, boulder outcroppings, dead end roads.
Back behind Pinecrest Lake & Dodge Ridge Ski are several dirt road loops w/ primitive camping at Bell Meadow Crabtree
Campfire permits are Required for camping outside of developed NFS campgrounds. Obtain a free campfire permit before you build a fire. Have a bucket and shovel at camp, always; attend the fire at all times.
Levitt Lake @ 9556′ elev, on the eastern slope of Sonora Pass has rocky road to wonderful scenery. Mid summer snow melt, so bring the good jacket – even in summer. High elevation camping, hiking, kayaking; rock scrambling at tree line. This alpine lake best reached with high clearance vehicle.
Union, Utica, and Spicer Reservoirs have a few dirt roads to explore off Spicer Rd #7N01, with abundant trails for hiking and mountain biking. Tons of firewood, free for the cutting. Bring your saw!
Kayaking and canoeing are popular at both Union and Utica. Dirt road access. No motors on lake. FREE LAKE CAMP: Shoreline camping is possible, but summer crowds – can get downright insane. Nothing like a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Big families camping out all week long w/ all their toys, tents, multiple vehicles. Try to visit in the off-season for the best experience at these 2 lovely lakes. Spicer has developed campgrounds w/ fees, but has real boat ramps and can also accommodate RV campers.
OHV Trails Stanislaus
4×4 camps and dirt bike trails can be found at Niagra Creek, on the south side of Highway 108, before Clarks Fork.
Union Reservoir has a popular 4WD trail that connects up to Lake Alpine @ Ebbetts Pass.
BACK ROADS TIP
Regular dirt roads can become “4WD needed” with any decent amount of snow or heavy rains, especially on the steeper sections. Remember: No guard rails on the dirt roads. If you plan to camp ‘way back in there, in the boonies’ – make sure you know the weather forecast and have a vehicle that can get out; no matter how sloppy the road gets. Thunderstorms are possible. Snow is 75% of the year.
Due east of Bakersfield, CA the Kern Canyon’s massive rock opens to the west with big water. CA 178 Narrow 2-lane highway, lined by tall rock walls, cliffs, curves, few pull-outs and less guardrails. Geologically, the drive is impressive entering the canyon.
A large sign with death toll looms at the entrance, warning you to stay out and stay alive.
The Kern River is a southern flow, draining much of the southern mountains in the Sierra Nevada, including much Mount Whitney snow melt. Lake Isabella redirects the river westward to the Central Valley, so farmers can grow orchards of fruit. Citrus blossom fragrance fills the air on warm evenings, so be prepared to roll down the windows as you exit suburbia.
Kern County: Southern Sierra Nevada mountains river canyon, this prized recreation destination is the main attraction for the entire county. Lake levels at Isabella are often low, so know before you go w/ the Dam Task Force web page link and info.
The few oak & pines trees around this river may be the only shade you will find in the summer on the southern end, and this place can get triple digit hot in summer months (so be forewarned). A refreshing dip in the cool Kern River is what you really seek, but this is a real river, a fast river, a dangerous white water river – so take extreme precautions around this river w/ life jackets. Hundreds have died already, as the sign tells us so. Rafters consider whitewater rating a Class V, for most of the lower Kern section.
Upper Kern: Main fork of the Kern River is situated along the Rincon Fault line, which become the granite gorge of Kern River Canyon further north; the initial snowmelt and headwaters are located deep in backcountry of the Golden Trout Wilderness. All draining the backside of Mount Whitney and the Great Western Divide.
This larger, main river fork parallels the Sierra Hwy north of Kernville, CA with many miles of epic scenery. Plenty of camping for all types, fishing, tubing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking and backpackers trailheads.
South fork of the Kern River begins up in the Golden Trout Wilderness. Tulare County. Eastern Sierra @ Olancha Peak. Monache Meadows, Inyo National Forest. The river traverses southward over the Kern plateau, Kennedy Meadows, Dome Land Wilderness. Chimney Peak Wilderness, Long Valley Campground. At Pilot Knob (6200′ elev) the South Kern turns west to join Lake Isabella.
Lower Kern: West of Lake Isabella, the river continues tumbling down the rocky, oak hills below the Greenhorn Mountains and eventually ends up at Lake Ming, or downtown Bako.
Little Kern River: a smaller, western fork coming down from Quinn Peak (10,168′ elev) on the Great Western Divide in the Golden Trout Wilderness. It joins at the Forks of the Kern near Jerky Meadow.
The whole Kern Canyon region is part of Sequoia National Forest and always under a wildfire threat in the latter part of the year. Kern River is very popular with city dwellers seeking big Sierra water that is close to SoCal.
Wildflowers are incredible in Kern County overall, and the Kern Canyon is no exception. Lower Kern blooms earlier than Upper Kern. Old Kern Canyon Road is a scenic drive that parallels the highway where you can find flora blooming March – May. Above Kernville the wildflower showing may be short, but sweet. Large river Lupine can be found at almost every campground, while Golden Poppies and Owls Clover line meadows near the main highway.
A variety of terrain in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains will have you puzzled where to start. From cedar forests to Sequoia groves, mountain peaks to fishing creeks, granite domes to granite gorges, wildflowers to waterfalls, hot springs to hot summers, Kern County has it.
Winter backpacking is quite popular here, as snow levels do not drop as drastically as in other mountain locations. Elevations from 1000′ – 4000′ are often ideal for winter hiking trips. Summer is usually best in the higher elevations, above 5000′
Wilderness permits are required for backcountry overnight stays.
Free camping, boondocking and primitive camping options are found near small streams and along the backroads of the neighboring Sequoia National Forest areas. Most secluded camps can be found 25+ miles north of Kernville, well away from the Kern River on the feeder creeks that flow into the big river. Dirt road driving may be required to find the most secluded camp spot. See more on Sequoia dispersed camping on back roads.
Campfire Permits are required for back roads primitive camping in this tinder-box region. More often than not, fire restrictions prohibit campfires during dry conditions. Hot summers, even lasting well into autumn. Obtain a free fire permit online or from the local rangers and be sure to find out if any restrictions are currently in place. USFS Ranger stations are located in downtown Kernville and at Lake Isabella.
Southern Sierra Nevada Foothills
Great Western Divide
One of the smallest rivers in the Sierra Nevada, the Tule River has three forks and is located within Tulare County. Tule drains the Golden Trout Wilderness on the Great Western Divide, part of the Sierra Nevada range. California Highway 190 connects the upper elevations of the Giant Sequoia to the farm town of Porterville. Tule River parallels this main Sierra highway as it flows west into the Central Valley.
Inside Mountain Home State Forest – Hidden Falls & Moses Gulch Campgrounds, both have small waterfalls & swimming holes. Dirt roads access these back woods camp spots, but they are both popular among the locals in summer months. Off season is best for minimal crowds. Mosquitoes can be fierce; bring the repellent or a screen room.
Clear, cold, snowmelt water, flowing west – out of the Golden Trout Wilderness. Deep within the Western Sierra Nevada, lined with granite cliffs and neighboring the oldest Sequoia groves, the north fork of the Tule River descends down the forested canyons to meet the oak-land foothills at Springville, CA.