Kern River North Fork Headwaters


Stretch: Junction Meadow to Little Kern Confluence
Difficulty: class V with multiple portages, harder at higher flows
Distance: 21 hiking plus 37 river miles, many days
Flows: kayaks 500 - 2500 cfs, raft minimum 800?
Gauge: take-out similar to flow at Kernville (by Army Corps)
Gradient: 90 fpm average, steeper and flatter at times
Put-in: by hiking over Whitney Portal to Junction Meadow, 8000'
Take-out: by hiking up from Little Kern confluence, 4660'
Shuttle: 162 miles (4 hours) one-way, mostly on paved roads
Maps: USFS Sequoia NF, AAA Sequoia Region
Season: spring and early summer, from snowmelt
Agency: National Park, USFS (permit required below take-out)
Notes: © 1997 Preston Holmes,

Today acknowledged as the easiest and most often boated, this was 2nd of the so-called Triple Crown high Sierra first descents, done by Reg Lake, Royal Robbins, and Doug Thompkins in 1981. The others were the Middle Fork San Joaquin in 1980, an exhausting but rewarding class V+ marathon thru vertical-walled Balloon Dome Gorge, and the Middle Fork Kings in 1982, an insanely steep (over 400 fpm at times) hard-to-access gorge that has been rafted once but seldom kayaked again.

For photos showing the hike over Whitney Portal and many parts of the river, see the slide show Headwaters of the Kern by Preston Holmes, organized chronologically.

Hardshell kayakers usually carry their boats over Whitney Portal, a 13777' pass with tough scree slope at the top. Rafters usually hire pack animals to transport their boats to Junction Meadows, either hiking along, or meeting the pack train after hiking Whitney Portal. Charles Foster divides the Headwaters of the Kern run into five segments:

1. above Junction Meadow cataracts - over 1 mile, 200 fpm, continuous class IV+

2. Junction Meadow to Upper Funston Meadow - 9 miles, 151 fpm, nearly continuous class IV

3. The Meadows - 11 miles, 42 fpm, meandering class II with one class IV then class I

4. Grasshopper Flat to Kern Falls - 7 miles, 143 fpm, a portage, then class V to another portage

5. Kern Falls to the Little Kern - 10 miles, 55 fpm, class II-III with occasional IVs and one class V

Below the Little Kern, you can continue with the Forks of Kern run, or hike your boats up an easy 2 mile trail to a dirt road. See Forks of the Kern for details.


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