165 miles from LA, the town of Kernville sits in the southern Sierra Nevada. Small-town vibes compliment the great outdoors in this unique destination, where the high desert meets the river.
For many years, visitors have flocked to the region enjoying a range of adventures from whitewater rafting, kayaking and tubing on the Kern River — to biking, hiking, camping, and climbing its rocky terrain. Kernville is also a fishing destination; anglers from everywhere come to fish the Kern River for its native trout. And though it’s a destination in itself, Kernville’s location means it also serves the gateway to the Giant Sequoia National Monument, a bucket-list-worthy adventure.
In town, Kernville visibly retains its gold rush and Old West roots; after years of Wild West shootouts and rowdy makeshift bars, its streets calmed and provided a picturesque backdrop for Old West movie sets. Today, downtown Kernville exudes historic charm in an impossibly scenic landscape, where the desert meets the river.
Read on for our complete guide to Kernville, CA.
Where to Stay in Kernville, CA: The Best Airbnbs, Hotels & Camping
Kern River House’s River Willow Cabin in Kernville, CA.
Don’t let the size of the town, or its small population of 1,400 fool you – there are many lodging options in Kernville, from camping and glamping to boutique hotels and luxury cabins.
At the top of our list is the Kern River House, whose properties are straight from the so-cozy-it’s-sexy pages of Cabin Porn. Their four rental homes are exactly the type of rental we love: where guests can check-in and “check out,” never having (or wanting) to leave. Inside, interiors are a mix of all the right things, swapping the usual California desert Airbnb aesthetic in favor of cozier Adirondack vibes – with riverstone fireplaces, chunky colorful textiles and rugs, kitschy wallpaper, vintage magazines, and one-of-a-kind furnishings. Of the four rental homes, we opted for the River Willow Cabin, perched on a hill overlooking the Kern River.
While staying at the River Willow Cabin, guests don’t need to dine out; instead, cook a meal over the BBQ to be enjoyed on the deck, or cook inside in the well equipped kitchen. The cabin has private river frontage for guests to spend days fishing, dipping into the river and sunbathing on the beach. After a day outside, rinse off in the outdoor shower, nestled between boulders and tall trees. At night, a fire pit on the sandy shores of the property is perfect gathering space for stargazing.
When you do venture out, the house is central to all our favorite hikes and off-roading spots, located on the very scenic Sierra Way. Rates begin around $350/night at the River Willow Cabin.
Left: camping in Sequoia National forest by Denys Nevozhai. Right: Piazza’s Pine Cone Inn in Kernville.
If total immersion into nature is your thing, there are no less than 44 campgrounds in surrounding Sequoia National Forest region; around 15 of those campsites are in or near Kernville. Book a campsite through recreation.gov to reserve a site, whose rates are super affordable, beginning around $20/night. We’d recommend looking around Riverkern for the campgrounds with proximity to town, the Kern River, and stunning mountain views.
Last, lovers of vintage and retro charm will adore Piazza’s Pine Cone Inn, whose comfy rooms overlook a pool and spectacular mountain backdrop. The mom-and-pop motel has been lovingly preserved by the Piazza family since the 1950’s, who still own it. Delightful vintage details like original key fobs, brightly colored tile bathrooms, knotty pine walls, original light fixtures and an on-site dining room are very welcome reminders of the past. On the property, a hotel cat helps to greet guests, and can often be seen sauntering through the garden and pool area which is lush with flowers, cacti and other greenery. If vintage motels give you all the feels, look no further. Rates begin around $135/night.
Best Things to Do in Kernville, CA: Off-Roading & Hiking
Park at McNally’s and walk toward the river, where this bridge gives hikers access to the Whiskey Flat Trail.
Kernville is set in the foothills of the Sierras, and is best known for its outdoor attractions — particularly water sports like white water rafting, tubing, and fishing — but also for its incredible hiking. Our favorite time to visit is spring, before the summer tourist rush – it’s also when the snowmelt fills the river, the hillsides bloom with colorful wildflowers, and temperatures are mild enough for afternoon hikes under the sunny skies.
For hikers, Cannel Meadow boasts some really lovely views, and its 20-mile length allows for a choose-your-own-adventure. More casual hikers can opt for the 4-mile version, which climbs to a cattle gate at the top of a hill (you can’t miss it) and affords incredible views of the two meadows below.
Another trail of note is the Whiskey Flat Trail, whose out-and-back trail is 12 miles long. (Again, no need to complete the entire thing; simply turn back when you’re feeling about halfway done.) A popular portion of the trail is accessible from McNallys, where hikers cross a footbridge over the Kern before meeting the trail. Just up the road, a similar experience can be had at Johnsondale Bridge, whose 5-mile trail is also popular among fishermen; park by the bridge and follow the stairs down to the trail that meanders along the river. The towering mountains on both sides of the trail offers some shade, perfect for those hot desert days.
Off the beaten path – literally – there are many dirt roads to explore that shoot off the side of Sierra Way outside Kernville. These roads don’t have names and presumably serve as access points for power lines, but their winding paths are total hidden gems, climbing straight up to the best views of the Sierra Mountains in the area. Head up in the afternoon, park your car and take a hike on the trails; or bring a picnic and watch sunset from the spot of your choice. Here’s a pin drop to one of our favorite roads. Please note that 4WD is needed to access these trails.
Best Things to Do in Kernville, CA: Water Sports & Fishing
Left: kayaking on Lake Isabella. Right: viewpoint from one of the many access roads accessible from Sierra Way.
Most people visit Kernville for respite in its river, where visitors enjoy whitewater rafting, kayaking, swimming and tubing. But be warned that the river can also be quite dangerous during heavy flow times – and has even earned the title of “Killer Kern” after some fearful incidents. (Remember: safety first!)
Under calmer conditions, especially mid- to late-summer, this chilly ribbon of water is the perfect refresher, ideal for tubing. For $45, raft companies such as Sierra South will rent you a tube and shuttle guests to a drop-in point. For those looking for a more exciting day on the river, book your adventure at one the many shops in town, like the aforementioned Sierra South, or try Kern River Outfitters and Whitewater Voyages.
Downriver, the Kern River feeds the beautiful Lake Isabella, with its other-worldly landscape where enormous desert boulders jut out from the water. Rent a wave runner, fishing boat, pontoon, or kayak at French Gulch Marina and try not to think about how weird it is to be on a lake in the desert. (Pro tip: do not do as we did, and attempt kayaking on a windy winter day. Sometimes we attempt the dumb things so you don’t have to.)
In other water sports, those hoping to fly fish can take a lesson, or simply pop in to check conditions and buy flies at Guy Jeans & Kern River Fly Fishing. The owner, Guy, is a dedicated guide and teacher; even experienced anglers will benefit from a guided half or full day trip with Guy to learn the Kern.
Daytrips from Kernville: Sequoia National Forest, Alta Sierra Ski Resort & Snow Tubing
If you’re visiting for more than a weekend in Kernville, there’s plenty more afoot through the region.
The Trail of the Giants is a must-see, where towering sequoias – many over 1,000 years old – will absolutely humble you. An easy, 1.3 mile trail meanders through Long Meadow Grove, about 45 minutes from Kernville. Parking is $5. Note that it’s open seasonally, from around April to November, depending on snow conditions; check the website before you go. Also of note: at 6,000’ elevation, the area is consistently ~15 degrees cooler than Kernville, so plan accordingly.
Speaking of the cold, in winter, visitors may want to check out Alta Sierra, the only ski lift and tube park between Big Bear and Mammoth. The resort is small and features only natural snow, and is open most weekends beginning in late December through March, depending on snow conditions. Check their website before making the 10 mile, 25 minute trek from Kernville.
Where to Eat & Drink in Kernville, CA: the Best Restaurants & Bars
You could almost hear the river from That’s Italian in Kernville, if not for the tunes of Dean Martin and Pavarotti playing overhead.
Kernville’s dining options are refreshing change of pace from LA and other tourist destinations. Indulge in a meal at one of the many mom-and-pop type joints in town; or even better, prepare your own meals in your cozy abode.
For breakfast and lunch, Riverkern General Store and Blue Bear Cafe are both solid options. Steps from Kern River House Willow Cabin, Riverkern General Store is a local spot with breakfast sandwiches and BBQ, and its store is convenient for things like ice or camping gear. In town, Big Blue Bear Cafe offers classic cafe fare like salads, soups, and sandwiches. Both have outdoor areas. For quick lunch in town, grab a burrito at El Rio and walk it down to Riverside Park. Outside town, McNally’s Outpost’s burger stand has great burgers (including Beyond burgers), fries, milkshakes and the like. If you’re planning on hiking the Whiskey Flat Trail, this is one of its trailheads, so it’s a great spot to plan for a pre- or post-hike meal.
For dinner, diners will enjoy a few more options, none of them trendy and all of them satisfying. Eddy Out Tap House has the most elevated menu in town, offering lots of fish-forward menu items alongside more standard steakhouse menu items like ribs, steaks and burgers. Next up, Ewings on the Kern has outstanding views of the Kern River Valley, a lodge-y atmosphere, a standard steakhouse menu, and a lovely patio. Make sure to get a seat with a view! Back in town, Kern River Brewing Co. is the highest rated dinner in town, offering pub fare and an ever-rotating cast of local brews.
For those looking to carb load for adventure, or just indulge, check out Pizza Barn and That’s Italian. We love the atmosphere at the latter – where dinner is served over red-and-white checkered tablecloths with complimentary garlic bread, and you can almost hear the sound of the river – if it weren’t for the tunes of Dean Martin and Pavarotti playing overhead.
Last, for nightcaps or day drinking, the Kernville Saloon and Sportman’s Inn are laid back, local watering holes. Rumor has it that Sportsman’s Inn was just bought and will be under new ownership soon; we’re excited to see what happens there. Any excuse to go back to Kernville is a good one.