The Cannell Meadow Trail - AKA The Cannell Plunge - is the crown jewel of the Kern Plateau. This trail has lots of everything - lots of crazy descending, long flat buff runs along big meadows, rocky and difficult climbing, fire roads, stream crossings, wildlife, wildflowers, forest, desert, and best of all incredible views of the Kern River Valley and Lake Isabella far, far below.
Having a net elevation loss of nearly 7000' and a total loss of 8000' over 25 miles is only part of the reason this ride is nicknamed "The Plunge." The true reason comes in the second half of the descent, where the rider drops from 7300' on the edge of the Kern Plateau directly down to 2700' at the Kern River just north of the town of Kernville. This ride is certainly the 'big fish' of the region. There are few other rides in the area that can match the drop of The Plunge, and those are mostly fire road or paved road routes. The Plunge is nearly all singletrack, with only a few connector sections of fire road.
Though it is certainly possible to do this ride as a loop, almost nobody is endowed with the super powers required for such a feat. I have read one account in a guide book where the author attempted the ride as a 2-day 'mini tour' with a planned bivouack. This ill-fated journey turned into a 3.5-day epic when the author got lost on the descent, left his bike behind, and scrambled for many hours through classic Southern Sierra bushwhack terrain.
The only practical way for mortals to do this ride is as a shuttle run. There are a few commercial shuttle services available, the most popular being Mountain River Adventures in Kernville. Prices are reasonable, but they require at least 4 customers to make a trip. Group rates are available, as well as specials and 2-day packages, particularly during their October Fat Tire Fest.
Private shuttles are feasible, and for this I recommend leaving one car in Kernville, then driving up Sherman Pass and camping in the vicinity of the trailhead. Sleeping at least one night at the higher elevation (~9000') will help with acclimatization to prevent accute mountain sickness (AMS) or just plain sluggish performance at altitude.
GoogleEarth - Cannell Meadow Trail
The trail starts on the southwest side of the Sherman Pass parking area, at 9100' elevation. The first descent is down a rocky and sandy section of trail leading into the Round Meadow area. Level riding past the meadow leads through a forest of lodgepole pine and red fir trees. The trail crosses the Mosquito Meadow Road a couple times on a gradual climb, then passes a small parking/camping area at the end of the road near Mosquito Meadow. After this, the climbing gets steeper as the trail heads up to a pass northwest of Sirretta Peak, at 9500' elevation. This pass is the high point of the ride.
A long descent from the pass leads through more rocky and sandy terrain. This is a very fun descent leading down to a junction with a trail leading west to the Cherry Hill Road. A short climb follows, then more fun descending down a rocky canyon to the Big Meadow Cabin at 7800' elevation. This is a historic site, and also a good camping area.
At the Big Meadow Cabin, the trail follows the road but becomes unridable near the edge of Big Meadow. It is best to follow the road around Big Meadow. The road climbs away from the meadow area and over a pass east of Cannell Peak, then levels off. The Cannell Meadow Trail appears again on the right.
A steep climb is made after leaving the road, and some walking may be required in this section. The trail crosses a ridgetop at 8500' elevation, then again descends sandy and rocky terrain down towards Cannell Meadow at 7400' elevation.
Ride south, keeping to the east side of the meadow. The trail becomes faint in places where it rides through the meadow. Enter a narrow canyon at the bottom of the meadow, where the riding becomes more interesting. Technical challenges abound on this section of the trail. There are many big boulders and very twisty sections of trail here. The trail exits the narrow canyon and cruises through a level section of jeffrey and ponderosa pine forest before intersecting a dirt road.
Go left and head southeast on this road for a short distance and pick up the trail on the right again. The trail begins descending again, through an open forest with manzanita. A few minor dirt roads are crossed here, but it is obvious which way the trail goes. This section is the start of The Plunge, where the trail descends from 7300' near Cannell Meadow down to 2700' at the Kern River.
The trail gains a ridgetop, where it meanders back and forth for the next few miles. There are a couple faint trail junctions here, along a section where some walking uphill is required. Take the uphill branch at each trail junction, and stay near the ridgetop.
At a saddle at 5300' elevation, where a trail leads south to Tunnel Spring, head northwest and begin a traverse across the mountainside. After traversing for approximately 2 miles, the trail crosses the ridgetop and begins some rough switchbacks down the south face of the ridge. These switchbacks are the last of the difficult riding.
Soon the trail enters cattle country and follows a dirt road for much of the remaining descent. Either the trial or the road can be followed here until a broad saddle at 3200' elevation. Here, the trail turns west and the road turns south. Follow the trail down a few more switchbacks, then ride out into a horse pasture where the trail ends just above the Kern River at 2700' elevation, at Mountain Road 99 just north of the Mountain River Adventures campground in Kernville.
Kernville (Lower) Trailhead:
From the junction of Highways CA-99 and CA-178 in Bakersfield, head east on CA-178 to Lake Isabella. Exit at CA-155 and head north through Wooford Heights. Continue, now on Burlando Road, to Kernville. At the 'T' intersection where Burlando Road meets Sierra Way (Mountain Road 99), go left and drive just north of town, passing the Mountain River Adventures campground, and park at the signed Cannell Meadow Trail parking area on the right side of the road.
From the junction of Highways CA-14 and CA-178 in Inyokern, head west on CA-178 over Walker Pass and through Cane Break and Onyx to Sierra Way (Mountain Road 99) on the east side of Lake Isabella. Drive north around the lake and through Kernville, passing the 'T' intersection with Burlando Road. Continue to the signed parking for Cannell Meadow Trail on the right.
Northwest From Porterville:
From the junction of Highways CA-99 and CA-190 in Porterville, head east on CA-190 and drive up through Springville and Camp Nelson, then continue south where the road becomes Mountain Road 50 near Ponderosa. At the junction with the Parker Pass Road, go left and descend to Johnsondale. Where the Parker Pass Road intersects Mountain Road 99, go right and continue approximately 15 miles south to Kernville, where the signed Cannell Meadow Trail parking will be on the left, opposite the river.
Sherman Pass (Upper) Trailhead:
From Kernville Trailhead:
Head north on Mountain Road 99 approximately 10 miles to the Sherman Pass Road, which heads east just north of a high bridge over the Kern River. Head east and drive up the Sherman Pass Road to 9100' Sherman Pass. There is a large parking area here. More parking and good camping can be found along the Mosquito Meadow Road, which leaves the Sherman Pass Road about 1 mile west of Sherman Pass.