If you like camping, then you’ll love the Kern River and Lake Isabella. It’s as simple as that.
There’s literally hundreds of campsites spread out up and down the river and all around the lake. All are ready to become perfect base camps for a couple days of outdoors fun.
It’s no secret however. Expect large crowds during summer weekends when people from all over California head to the river to cool down and enjoy the scenery. In the spring people come for river rafting and excellent crappie fishing. When temperatures dip in the winter, there’s still great fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and even skiing nearby.
If you’re driving in from Bakersfield on Highway 99 as most do, the first campgrounds will start to appear a few miles before you get to the town of Lake Isabella.
The campsites are a mix of developed campgrounds that charge a fee and primitive campgrounds that are free to use, but come without bathrooms and picnic tables. Several privately-run campgrounds have the best locations on the river, especially for those wanting to be in Kernville where there are shops and restaurants.
Please know that the section of the river from the canyon entrance to Lake Isabella can be deadly dangerous. The Kern’s nickname is “The Killer Kern” because more than 300 people have drowned there since 1970. Yet despite the track record, the nickname, and the warnings, people continue to drown in the river every year. Be careful.
Once you get to the lake, you’ll find several large developed campgrounds around the lake. On the less-visited east side side of the lake, there’s free lakeshore camping at Stine Cove and a woodsy area called Hanning Flat. Boating enthusiasts will prefer the Old Isabella site because you can park your boat or jet ski at your campsite.
To the north of the lake is Kernville and more camping. Kernville is where much of the area’s tourist infrastructure resides. There’s restaurants, a public riverside park, a U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center, and a grocery market/deli.
There are several family-friendly privately-run campgrounds lining the river in Kernville and Riverkern. North of town there are many more campgrounds managed by the forest service.
There’s also plenty of camping in the mountains above the Kern River to the north of Kernville, including access to Domeland Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, and Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Another worthwhile note for first-timers is regarding cell phone service. Around Lake Isabella and Kernville is covered. In the canyon below the dam, and on the river above Kernville, expect to be without service.
KERN RIVER – From North to South in Orientation
Bush Creek Dispersed
Calkins Flat Dispersed
Chamise Flat Dispersed
Ant Canyon Dispersed
Gold Ledge Campground
Corral Creek Dispersed
Hospital Flat Campground
Chico Flats Campground
Thunderbird Group Campground
KRS RV Resort
Frandy Park Campground
Sandy Flat Campground
LAKE ISABELLA – Clockwise from dam