In meteorology and hydrology, there are few certainties. One exception may be the Kern River. When the Sierra Nevada gets an above-average snow dump--such as the one that whitened our majestic mountain range this winter--the Kern will surely roil with torrents of snowmelt in spring and summer.
If your family is up for an exhilarating, unpredictable ride on a foaming river, this may be the best rafting season in years. Several white-water outfitters in Kernville, about a three-hour drive northeast of L.A., offer a variety of daylong tours on the Kern. Some are rollicking adventures for thrill-seekers; others are gentle paddles suitable for 5-year-olds.
The river is never the same day to day, and that's part of the thrill of white-water rafting. Changing water levels, shifting boulders and underwater logs can turn a calm eddy one day into a swirling whirlpool the next.
Above Isabella Lake--the stretch of river known as the Upper Kern--the water charges down like a stampede, with neck-snapping Class III and IV rapids that have names such as Betty's Bakery. These rapids are so rough that outfitters won't take kids younger than 9; they can raft below the lake, where the water runs more slowly and is controlled by a dam.
For the best access to some of the river's outdoor thrills, make the tiny, rustic town of Kernville your base. To get a better sense of the rowdy era that gave birth to it and the surrounding towns, visit the Kern River Valley Historical Society museum and leaf through its black-and-whites of Wild West prospectors, saloon patrons and outlaws. Ask about Old Kernville (now called Whiskey Flat), the town that was flooded when Isabella Lake was dammed in 1953.
From Kernville, drive south about 10 miles along Burlando Road, which turns into Highway 155. Isabella Lake is one of California's largest reservoirs, but for visitors it's a source of fun, a place to boat, fish, swim and windsurf.
Then head north to the Trail of 100 Giants, where a half-mile-long path winds past sequoias that reach 220 feet tall and up to 20 feet in diameter.
Among these giants, you might get a hankering for a mammoth meal. So swing into McNally's Fairview Lodge in Kernville, where the cooks dare you to order and finish the 40-ounce porterhouse steak. Few accomplish this feat, so don't feel bad if you have to schlep home your leftovers.
One of the best mountaintop views in the state is nearby. Take a five-mile round-trip hike to a fire lookout tower at the 8,245-foot summit of the Needles, a collection of spires on a ridge overlooking the Kern River. From there, you might spot the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States. The massive rock peak also ranks as one of the most challenging rock-climbing areas, but that's a thrill to save for another time. Start by running the river.--
WHERE TO STAY
River View Lodge, 2 Sirretta St.; (760) 376-6019, www.riverviewlodge.net. Rustic and charming. Doubles from $79. Whispering Pines Lodge, 13745 Sierra Way; (760) 376-3733, www.kernvalley.com/whisperingpines. Doubles from $149, with breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
McNally's Fairview Lodge, Sierra Highway; (760) 376-2430, www.mcnallys fairviewlodge.com. Woodsy lodge with big portions. Entrees $20 to $50.
WHAT TO DO
Five outfitters have permits to run the Kern: Whitewater Voyages, 5225 San Pablo Dam Road; (800) 400-7238, www.whitewatervoyages.com (minimum age 10 to 12); Kern River Outfitters, 6602 Wofford Heights Blvd., Wofford Heights; (760) 376-3370, www.kernraft ing.com (minimum age 9); Kern River Tours, 2712 Mayfair; (800) 844-7238, www.kernrivertours.com (minimum age 6); Sierra South Mountain Sports, 11300 Kernville Road; (800) 457-2082, www.sierrasouth.com (minimum age 6); and Mountain & River Adventures, 11113 Kernville Road; (760) 376-6553, www.mtnriver.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times