A vast outdoor playground with a few surprises
SPANNING THE SOUTHERN END of the fertile Central Valley, Kern County can resemble the Plains states more than popular images of California. The third-largest county by area stretches from the coastal mountains, over the Sierra range and into the Mojave Desert, consisting mostly of farms and small towns dependent on oil fields and the military. But in their midst lie some of California’s finest outdoor recreation opportunities.
Almost 43 percent of the county’s estimated 886,507 residents live in Bakersfield, known for the roots-oriented Bakersfield Sound genre of country music embraced by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam. The city is also justly proud of its dozens of parks and the diversity of museums.
The scenic Kern River has drawn outdoor enthusiasts to this region for decades. The deep Kern Canyon, northeast of Bakersfield, is a hot spot for trout fishing, boating, kayaking, riverboarding and some of California’s most challenging whitewater rafting. Camping, hiking and picnicking are also popular.
Ghost-town aficionados stop at Silver City on the way, even though it’s actually a collection of more than 20 historic buildings moved from surrounding mining camps to represent a town as it might have looked after the gold veins played out. Hollywood has made good use of the rustic setting, while some tours—both guided and self-guided are available—make good use of the town’s ghost lore.
North of Lake Isabella, the manmade reservoir dividing the Upper and Lower Kern River, the valley’s hub of activity is Kernville, southern gateway to the vast Sequoia National Forest. Here you can tour the U.S. Department of Fish & Game’s fish hatchery and book fly-fishing classes through the Kern River Fly Shop. The Kern River Brewing Company’s microbrewery provides a hefty proportion of in-town entertainment for visitors and locals alike.
On the way southeast to Tehachapi, a short detour reveals an engineering feat that draws rail enthusiasts from around the world: the Tehachapi Loop, a .73-mile spiral on the busy Union Pacific line where you can see longer trains crossing over themselves. Once in Tehachapi, a railroad museum, a budding wine trail, and the nearby Cat House (yes, really—a preserve for endangered felines) vie for attention, while petroglyphs and red striations in the desert cliffs and rock formations of Red Rock Canyon State Park are a 40-minute drive away.
WHISKEY FLAT DAYS in Kernville, above; Red Rock Canyon on I-14 in the Mojave Desert, below.