Nowadays, the 'cowboys' tame the wild Kern River
Those people raised on TV westerns like Bonanza will feel like they've stepped right onto the Ponderosa when they take the one-hour drive northeast from Bakersfield to the town of Kernville. There's good reason: dozens of TV and movie westerns have been filmed in the immediate vicinity.
If you've always wondered where they came up with all that TV western scenery in California, the land of beaches and palm trees, one trip to Kernville and the mystery will be solved. The Kern River Valley, it turns out, has it all: mountains, river, forest and -- back when they were filming -- a western theme town that could double for any rough-and-tumble settlement in the Old West.
Today the town retains its western flavor with old-style buildings, antique shops, saloons and an impressive museum that displays an amazing amount of Kern Valley history. But today's cowboys — at least in the spring and summer — are the river rafters who come to Kernville in droves to ride the wild currents of the scenic Kern River. The rafting on this river generally is Class 3 or slightly more challenging, making it ideal for those new to the sport.
During our June visit, the rafters were filling local motels and campgrounds and, just like those scenes from the Old West where Main Street was always bustling with cowboys on their wagons and horses, 21st Century Kernville was alive with rafters on foot, in their vans and in their busses. Find any good vantage point of the river and you would find another group of rafters yipping with excitement as they negotiated the last set of rapids before pulling their boat out when they reached Kernville's downtown park.
Things get quieter during the week in Kernville, as evidenced by the fact that several local restaurants seemed to have limited full-time wait staffs who are simply overwhelmed with the influx of visitors on weekends. So you might figure on waiting a little bit for your food — or dine during non-peak hours if you visit Kernville on a summer weekend.
But that's a small price to pay for a destination that seems to have so much going for it. The cowboy westerns were looking for good scenery when they scouted the Kern River Valley, and they certainly found it. Kernville is surrounded by mountains and, while some of the hillsides are golden and barren of vegetation, the Valley floor has hiking trails through plentiful groves of pine trees. There's even a giant Sequoia grove that is part of the Kern River Preserve.
We spent a couple of nights in Kernville at a place that we would consider a "find." While most lodgings in town seem to be rather typical motel units, we stayed at one of three bed-and-breakfasts in town, the Whispering Pines Lodge. If the term "bed-and-breakfast" conjures the image of a Victorian house where you stay in one of the antique-adorned bedrooms, this is not that kind of bed-and-breakfast. The Whispering Pines is a series of wood-frame buildings, each with several separate units. Our room was nicely appointed for a lodge that felt like it was out in the wilderness — modern cedar and oak furniture, a king bed, double vanities in the bathroom, hardwood floors, framed paintings and flowers strategically positioned throughout the over-size room. The curtains opened to reveal a woodsy view of the riverfront, a deck with table and chairs and, of course, a panoramic view of the churning Kern River.
The constant sound of the river reminded us of a riverfront cabin we once owned and this just bolstered the feeling that we had truly escaped from the city. Downtown Kernville was perhaps just a quarter mile away but we felt like we were holed up in our own remote mountain cabin. It was perfect for reading and relaxing, but we also wanted to sample some local trails.
We drove north from Kernville, passing numerous campgrounds that were located either close to the river or right on its banks. We stopped at a general store where we got some vague directions to a trail that supposedly went to a waterfall; ultimately they turned out to be a little too vague so we just pulled off the highway onto a steep dirt road and got a rare chance to do some off-roading. Since we're the type of off-roaders who don't want to put nicks and scratches on our Jeep, this off-roading was really on-roading, albeit on a primitive road. We also got out and hiked a while, soaking up the same valley views that you see in countless westerns.
Later we found a well-marked trail on the opposite side of the river from the lodge and walked through sometimes-thick forests parallel to the river. We were wishing we had timed this hike for early morning; the summer weather in Kernville can be hot mid-day. To cool off after our hike, we visited the air-conditioned Kern Valley Museum, a well-organized display of various artifacts and photos from Kernville's history that gives visitors a true sense of the area's past, from the early Indians to the gold miners to the farmers and ranchers who came later. There is even a room devoted to all of the TV and movie westerns filmed in the area from the 1930's through the 1950's.
Another piece of history located just 20 minutes from Kernville in Lake Isabella is a remarkable collection of authentic buildings that have been moved to and re-assembled at Silver City Ghost Town. These buildings are the real deal and reminded us of a similar display at Bodie, California's most famous ghost town. Several of the buildings such as the saloon and general store, are filled with authentic artifacts from the period — and some are even said to be haunted. If you can't make it to Bodie, this is the next best thing.
After a restful night's sleep, we discovered one more reason that the Whispering Pines fills up quickly on weekends — the full breakfast that is served, buffet style, every day of the week. Bed-and-breakfasts seem to run the gamut from those offering a roll and some coffee to those priding themselves on both the quality and quantity of food they present. The Whispering Pines falls into the latter category with its bacon, sausages, eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, quiche, fruit, rolls, juices and coffee all served up tasty and fresh in an atmosphere that encourages you to go back and fill your plate again.
In fact, that's the feeling we got from everything we did in Kernville. The town served up just as much as we had time to do — but we still want to go back for more.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Kernville is just northeast of Bakersfield, about an hour's drive through a scenic river canyon on Highway 178.
WHAT: Kernville is an old west town that today attracts many outdoors enthusiasts who like rafting, hiking, golf, fishing and the many water sports that are available on nearby Lake Isabella.
WHEN: Daytime temperatures hardly ever go below 60 and are considerably warmer in summer. Rainy season is November through March.
WHY: The opportunity to enjoy recreation in some of California's most scenic countryside.
HOW: For more information on Kernville and the surrounding area, please phone 760-376-2629 or visit
www.kernvillechamber.com. The Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce is at 760-379-5236 or www.kernrivervalley.org. For more information on the Whispering Pines Lodge, phone 877-376-3733 or visit
Photos: Kern River view; Whispering Pines Lodge; Silver City; Kern River rafters
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other
California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park,
Sequoia National Park.