Update – June 28, 2023
If you read my article below and watched that video you are going to be shocked by this incredibly surprising great news:
As of today, 6/28/2023, The Forks of the Kern is Open!
Yep, it’s true. Steve Day of Golden Trout Pack Station just called me with the news. I then called Western Divide Ranger district and confirmed it. As it turns out the private businesses (ranchers, loggers, etc.) that are on Forest Road 22S82 fixed it themselves. They couldn’t afford not being able to get in there. My guess is that Western Divide Ranger District then went in and fixed the dirt road to the trailhead.
of course, the river is currently a raging torrent of death at 5,500 CFS and rising right now. It’s unfishable. Just crossing the Little Kern River that is part of the trail would be a challenge, if not impossible. But, i will be watching the flow closely through July and get in there as soon as possible and report back. Remember that the Upper Kern fishes best under 500 CFS. if you are an advanced / expert fly fisher, you could manage under 1,000 CFS. But it would be difficult to find fishable water.
I was resigned to the fact that the Forks would be closed the entire year like it had been in two prior years after the fire. So, this is just awesome news for someone like me. I’ll be guiding under the permit of Golden Trout Pack Station this year. If interested in fishing with me guided on a backpacking adventure contact me to discuss details, questions, etc.
This is the article I have procrastinated on for months. But daily I answer so many emails, calls, txts, messages about the 2023 fly fishing season for the Upper Kern River. It’s time to come clean on the reality of the situation. I have talked to a few experts and done a ton of research.
It’s official: 2023 is the biggest winter in California Recorded History. The mountains above 12,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, we have a lot of them, have over 75 feet of snow.
On March 10th, 2023 my beloved Upper Kern River shot up from 500 CFS to 26,000 CFS in just 12 hours! By the time that water reached Kernville the river was at 39,000 CFS and there was worry of the bridge being compromised. The bridge did survive. On the Upper Kern, I doubt anything at the huck site still exists. My guess is even the fire pit is gone. The good news is that type of flooding flushes the Kern of it’s silt and makes for a better spawning habitat. We want wild native Kern River Rainbows spawning in abundance.
So I have some news and it’s not necessarily good. The biggest winter in CA history has already wreaked a lot of havoc.
I recently heard from Western Divide Ranger District that the road to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead turnoff, FR 22S82, is destroyed in numerous places.
Check out this helicopter video footage of FR 22S82. It’s shocking. The road is just gone in multiple places. There are landslides and boulders as big as cars on that 20 mile stretch. God only know what that 2 mile dirt road stretch looks like that goes to the trailhead.
Western Divide Ranger District told me it is very unlikely that the forks of the kern trailhead will be opened this year. That’s all they can say right now. There currently is no official word. IMHO, It’s going to take 10s of millions of dollars to fix that road. Since it leads nowhere and so few people live on that road, it’s not going to be a priority like fixing highway 180 is on the western side of the Sierra. And come springtime there will be a lot more roads to fix.
So the reality is that you will not be able to come even close to driving to the Forks of the Kern Trailhead this season.
I have been discussing this with my backpacking fly fishing buddies, the forest districts and Steve Day of Golden Trout Pack Station. You have heard the saying: “Where there is a will there is a way”. Well, with fly fishers, where there is a river, there is a way. The yearlong closure of the roads to Forks Trailhead means the backpacking into the upper kern are just going to be longer, harder and more arduous this year. It’s also just a given that the river won’t back down and be fishable until august. It’s funny that for years I thought of the Forks as a difficult trail. Now that it’s gone, I think of the Forks TH as convenient. Realize that the Forks Trailhead was closed for 2 years just a couple years ago because of the fire. Talk about a river getting a break to recover: for 3 of the last 4 years the Upper Kern won’t feel the pressure of us waving sticks throwing artificials at it.
Here are the most legitimate options for Backpacking overnighters for Fly fishing the Upper Kern this season of 2023:
- Lewis TH near the town of Ponderosa and the clicks TH. Currently you can’t do it because the roads are destroyed. Nor would you want to do it now because of the snow. But, the roads will most likely be fixed all the way in to this trailhead by summertime. it’s 4wd to the TH.
- Lewis TH to the Forks TH – 8.5 miles + the 2 miles down to the confluence
- Lewis TH to Kern Flats – 12.5 miles. 1400 ascent; 4000 decent
- Lewis TH to Hole in the Ground – 13 miles with 4k of elevation gains and 2k of loss on the hike in.
- Lewis TH to grasshopper flats – 12.5 miles with 4k of elevation loss and 2k of gain on the hike in.
- Freeman Creek Trail to Forks TH – 7 miles to the forks TH + the 2 miles down. Near quaking aspen and just north of Ponderosa. 500 feet of elevation, plus 1800 decent, then the 2k decent to the confluence. Not at elevation.
- Blackrock TH to Painters Camp – 9 miles starting at 9000 feet and losing 4,000 feet in the process. This is a brutal hike out where you have to gain back 4k feet and you are already at altitude. So, you do it with a stopover at Jordan hot springs half way. 9 mile creek there fishes well. I did this one last year and the fishing is spectacular. So is the camp. So is the scenery.
- Rincon TH to the forks – 12 miles. 9 miles of straight motorcycle trail awful until you descend down to the forks from the other (south) side of the river, bushwhacking a good portion of the way because the trail is rarely used. 2500 of ascent and 2700 of decent.
- Johnsondale Bridge Trail – 5.2 miles. Easy access on the highway from Kernville. The trail is much more rugged than the Forks trail and a lot more used and fished. The trail officially ends around 4 miles where the logical continuation is up the old mining trail to the rincon trail. But, you can climb and bushwhack your way another 1.2 miles until the canyon walls are so steep and the water is so deep you can’t go any farther.
Of all these there are 3 that are the most logical for the backpacking fly fisherman:
- Easiest – Freeman Creek Trail to Forks TH – 7 miles to the forks TH + the 2 miles down.
- Farthest up river – Lewis TH to grasshopper flats – 12.5 miles with 4k of elevation loss and 2k of gain on the hike in.
- Blackrock TH to Painters Camp – 9 miles starting at 9000 feet and losing 4,000 feet in the process.
There are other ways to get to the Upper Kern for the adventurous, young and fit and fearless, of course.
The “Other” Issue
The white elephant in the room is, of course, flow. The largest snowpack year in California recorded history is going to start melting in June, if not earlier.
The havoc has yet to even start. When that snow starts melting. Well, it’s going to cause flooding conditions and destroy roads. Hopefully, it won’t take more lives.
According to LADWP, April 1 snow surveys came back with historic results. We surpassed 2017 (the biggest year in the past 50 years), and 1969 (the biggest year on record), and set a new April 1 high snow level with the final snowpack recording 296% of normal April 1. That is just short of 70” of water content that will mostly melt and wreak havoc below. See the details here.
The question I’m asked the most is: “When will the Upper Kern be in shape to fish this year?” I use the gauge above the Fairview dam on the Dreamflows site to track the river flow here. My general rule is that the Upper Kern fishes great when the river gets below 500 CFS. That usually happens at the end of June / Early July. This year that won’t happen until August…if we are lucky. Sure, you can successfully fish stretches of the river when it’s higher flow. But, it’s just harder to wade. It’s harder to get a cast for a legit drift. And it can be dangerous.
So, what is the good news? Well, it’s ultimately going to be a better river as a result of this big winter. Also, a legitimate way to fish the Upper Kern this year is to have Golden Trout Pack Station do the heavy lifting.
Over the last 20 years I have run into owner Steve Day and his wranglers, horses, and mules of Golden Trout Pack Station many times on the Upper Kern River and have come to know him as a genuinely great guy. let’s face it… Steve’s business and the services he offers are pretty awesome.
So, for those of you, like me, that dread a 11 mile hike at altitude with a 4,000 foot gain and 45 lbs on your back… One of the modalities Steve’s business offers is called a “dunnage trip”. That is where mules carry all your stuff and you hike in (separately) empty. But, the mules don’t just carry your backpack… they carry coolers full of ice and fresh food… and beer. And you hike in empty.
This would be a legitimately fun way to fish with or without me. To have the mules carry all your stuff, depending on group size, it’s ~$400 per person, max of 150 lbs per mule …. fresh food, beer, coolers, everything. You hike in empty. In addition to that are guiding fees if you choose to use a guide.
Last season I was lucky enough to guide and teach a young film maker, Micah Conrad and his wife Dasha, how to fly fish. Now, there are addicted fly fishers. if interested to see the fun had when I’m guiding check out the two short videos Micah produced on the experiences here:
Fly Fishing a REMOTE River for Wild Trout with a 30 YEAR Fly Fishing VETERAN – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEEm1Ql9RFo&t=165s
EPIC FLY FISHING and Backpacking a JAW DROPPING Remote River! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDXa_wv1AxE&t=419s
So, there it is. I can / will live without another season of the Forks of the Kern Trailhead….at least by driving there. I sure as heck am going to hike there. I trust you can too. Look forward to seeing you out on the river… no matter how much harder / farther it is going to be to get to it.