This first appeared in Dirt Rag, Issue #203. Dirt Rag is dead, unfortunately. Independent journalism is not.
Feature: Kernville, Southern Sierra Nevada
Merle Haggard sang about the deadly Kern River that I sit beside as the sun slips behind the southern Sierra. Earlier this year, the river raged after record snowfall, and people, some drunk, set foot in the swift moving water to cool off from the hot summer heat and were not again seen alive. I am looking at a whitewater rapid upriver, thinking that where it spills out and becomes calmer by our campsite would be a fun little spot to jump in and cool off, a boulder submerged below the water’s surface but with a small foothold above the surface being a perfect perch.
Maybe tomorrow afternoon, I think. I also am thinking it would nice to feel the Kern’s flow, one that is different than that of trail flow, e.g. Just Outstanding, a little ways south of here.
Sierra blue sky turns evening pale, softening with yellows and then a white veil as the near-distant ridgeline goes black, silhouette becoming defined. A campfire on a spit of sand that serves as a beach crackles and pops in the dusk air. The river’s song rises up, the still of the night lifting day’s sounds to higher resonance.
Shuttle Bob dropped us at Big Flat, the upper Cannell not on our agenda on this trip. I raved on and on about starting up at the pass, and about doing the bonus section by pedaling to the top with the spectacular 360 degree Sierra view, but we, as a group, opted to not do so. The post-Noon air temperature was to hit 100 degrees F and we did not want to take chances with any heat-induced illnesses. Spirits were not dampened, though, the legendary Cannell Plunge (8 miles and 5000 feet of descent) still ahead of us after some cross-country miles to get warmed up.
Through meadows and blasting downhills and along the creek we went, blissful in riding back country trails that were not buff single track. It was technical, no doubt, sometimes more so in some sections than others, with other sections being about: I can look up and around and enjoy the views.
Then down, down, down we went, the Plunge, for me, requiring skills I do not get to use much elsewhere. Admittedly, some of it is too much for my skill set and cross-country race bike. I got off and walked a few spots. “No shame in that game,” was rattling in my brain, along with, “live to ride another day.”
Massive viewscapes characterized the ride experience, friends in front of me appearing as tiny creatures on rubberized hoops rolling on an earthen ribbon cut into the sides of mountains.
Unscathed, we all regrouped at the fence before the final drop into town, happy to have done it and equally happy to be done doing it.
After some lunch and beers at Ewings on the Kern, we headed up to Alta Sierra to ride Unal Trail, a great little loop that is half gut-punch and half downhillin’ fun. The temperature was in the upper 70s, about 25 less than down in Kernville town.
Up and around we went, counter clockwise, the punch in the gut made worse by beers swishing in our bellies. Nevertheless, we continued to climb to the top, stopping at the lookout with views all the way to the central Sierra.
Breaths caught and stomachs settled, it was time to go left from twelve to six on the clock face of Unal, a rollicking good time as we descended through the forest back to our vehicle.
JUST OUTSTANDING TO ROCKY GULCH
Local riders met up with us at Just Outstanding (J0) trail the next morning, JO having the same name as the award-winning IPA made by the local Kern River Brewing Company, which had several hands in on the crafting of the dreamy flow of JO down through the manzanita tunnels. It is not possible to ride a mountain bicycle on JO and not smile, hoot, and/or holler. It is an absolute blast, and I will leave it at that. Put it on your list.
Finishing up on JO, we pedaled the two-track to Rocky Gulch, with no plans to go over to Wall Street or Dutch Flat. Guided by Drew, a local rider from Ridgecrest, we went up and down and across Rocky Gulch, challenged by some serious, rocky, technical trail sections with steep chutes here and there. It is as good as it gets, if “old-school” rocks-ridin’ that requires strength and finesse is what you like to do on a sunny, summer morning in the mountains.
Dumped out on a dirt road, we pedaled it out to the hard road, our time this time in Kernville coming to a close.
“I get here at least once-a-year,” I tell Drew and the others. I have not found any place like it in this neck of the USA woods.
My toes curl around the edge of the boulder’s surface that is not submerged in the river. A tail of whitewater is about fifteen feet in front of me. I figure that a good place to dive into would be half way across, and then I would pop my head out of the water and get my feet downriver.
I do exactly that. The water is cold but refreshing and the current is swift for a few seconds, but then peters out, enough so that I can swim over to an eddy and clamber up on a boulder to exit. A big smile glistens off my face in the afternoon sunshine.
Friends decide to do the same thing, and I go around to do it a second time.
MOUNTAIN RIVER ADVENTURES (MRA)
MRA has a shuttle service, but might not be running if there are not enough riders. They have a campground, too, and can put together whitewater rafting and kayaking trips for you.
Glean the interwebs for local motels/deals. The Pine Cone Inn is basic, clean, and a few steps from the brewery.
You can camp anywhere along the Kern River running north of town, as long as you are in already established campgrounds/sites. Some you have to pay and others are free, which are primitive.
If you are camping and want to have a campfire and/or plan to cook with your stove, you need a fire permit. It is free. Get it ahead of time by going to this website and following along: http://www.preventwildfireca.org/Campfire-Permit/
If you need groceries and camping supplies, Sierra Gateway Market in town has what you need, as does Riverkern General Store and Deli a few miles north of town.
FOOD AND BEER
If you want tacos and pizza in town, you’ll find it. Check out Kern River Brewing Company for food, meaning not only for its world-class, award –winning, great beer selection. Ewing’s is great for any/all meals, made extra nice by a spectacular view of the river from the dining deck. Cracked Egg Café is a solid breakfast spot. So is Cheryl’s Diner. Support ‘em all.
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