The Kern Plateau is a vast 'highland' in the southeastern Sierra Nevada of California. The plateau comprises the drainage of the South Fork Kern River, nestled between the Golden Trout Wilderness on the north and the Domelands Wilderness on the south, and between the North Fork Kern River on the west and the southern Owens Valley and the Indian Wells Valley on the east.
The terrain ranges from granite slabs to duff to meadow to deep sand. Roads and trails spread like a web across the region, with a little something for every type of recreationist. There are challenging 4x4 roads like the Monache Jeep Trail, lots of motorcycle-friendly singletrack, some standard multi-use non-motorized trails, and some hike-or-horse-only wilderness trails. Also, this area is an excellent place for rock climbing, with well-featured granite domes everywhere.
The southwestern corner of the Kern Plateau is host to one of the biggest downhill runs in California, the infamous Cannell Plunge. Starting at Sherman Pass at 9100' and dipping and climbing for several miles near or above that elevation, the trail finally 'plunges' down to the Kern River at 2500' elevation near the town of Kernville. The total elevation loss for a day on the Plunge is somewhere near 8000' - quite a grand total!
Most of the riding on the Plateau is less dramatic than the Plunge. The trails vary widely in surface condition and material. There are damp, tacky sections through or by meadows, packed forest duff, motorcycle-churned sand, horse-churned sand, gravel, scree, boulders, creek crossings and bridges. There are several extended downhill runs that can be easily ridden as a loop. Depending on where you camp, most of the best riding can be done without moving the car the whole trip.
The area is mostly covered with dense forests of white and red fir, jeffrey, ponderosa and lodgepole pine, tamarack, black oak, and quaking aspen. There are also rare stands of ancient juniper. The area is peppered with meadows, but can be very desert-like in the east, near Monache Meadow and Troy Meadow.
California black bears are common here, so measures should be taken to secure food when you leave camp. Also abundant are mule deer, coyote, bobcat, gray squirrel, golden mantled ground squirrel, cangaroo rat, rattlesnake, blue-belly lizard, red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, crow, stellars jay, mockingbird, finch, woodpecker, cowbird, and mosquito.
Getting to the Kern Plateau involves quite a drive. It is a relatively remote area, perhaps 90 minutes from the nearest large city (China Lake). Any approach entails at least 1 hour of slow mountain road driving.
From the greater Los Angeles area and other southern California locales, the east side approach is most direct, and usually shortest. From the I-5 / CA-14 Freeway Interchange, take CA-14 north to Inyokern, where CA-14 merges with US-395. Continue north on US-395 to Nine Mile Canyon Road (signed for Kennedy Meadows). Go left and head west up to Kennedy Meadows. Where the road splits at Kennedy Meadows Store, go left up a long grade to the Troy Meadow area.
Several routes can be taken from the west side, all accessible from Hwy CA-99 between Bakersfield and Visalia. From Bakersfield, mountain driving can be minimized by taking CA-58 over to Mojave, then continue north on CA-14 as per the East Side approach above.
Also from Bakersfield, CA-178 follows the Kern River up to Lake Isabella. At Lake Isabella, exit on CA-155 and go north. Pass through Wofford Heights, now on Burlando Road, and continue to Kernville. Go left on Mountain Road 99, where Burlando Road ends at a 'T' intersection. A short distance north of Kernville, pass the Mountain River Adventures compound, famous among MTB'ers for their Kernville Fat Tire Festival in October. Continue north on Mountain 99 to the Sherman Pass Road. Go right and climb up to 9100' Sherman Pass, then continue east as far as desired - this road eventually connects with the road from Kennedy Meadows, in the area of Blackrock Ranger Station.
From Visalia and vicinity, exit CA-99 in Tipton and take CA-190 through Porterville and up to Ponderosa, then continue south to Mountain Road 50. Go left and descend through Johnsondale and down to the Kern River where the Sherman Pass Road starts.
Access Roads And Connecting Routes
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The two main roads accessing the area, the Sherman Pass Road from the west, and the Kennedy Meadows Road from the east, meet at the Blackrock Ranger Station. Blackrock Station has visitor information and wilderness permits for nearby Golden Trout and Domelands Wilderness Areas. From this junction, NF Road 21S03 heads north to Blackrock Mountain trailhead, and NF Road 21S02 goes north and west to Beach Meadow and Lion Meadow trailhead.
Some of the best riding in the area is in the quadrant north of NF 21S02 and west of NF 21S03. The Beach Trail and Little Horse Trail can both be accessed by heading north from Blackrock Station, then west to Osa Meadow. Though NF 21S03 can be used, it is the main paved route north of Blackrock, and can have some traffic. A good alternate route is NF 21S20, which can be reached by heading west from Blackrock Station on NF 21S02. Go right on NF 21S20 and follow north to NF 20S25. Go left on NF 20S25 and continue to Osa Meadow. The Beach Trail starts at the junction of NF 20S25 and the Blackrock Mountain Trail. The Little Horse Trail starts a little further north, where NF 20S25 reaches Osa Meadow. The Beach Trail and Little Horse Trail both connect with NF 21S02 at points west of NF 21S20.
One of the longest and most challenging routes can also be accessed from Osa Meadow. The Blackrock Mountain Trail heads roughly east from Osa Meadow and climbs up over the southern slopes of Blackrock Mountain, then heads down to the Monache Jeep Trail near Broder Meadow. This trail can also be accessed from NF 20S26, which crosses NF 20S25 just south of Osa Meadow, and from NF 21S03 near the Blackrock Mountain trailhead. The Monache Jeep Trail can be reached by heading north on NF 21S03 to NF 21S36, then going right. Continue on NF 21S36 to a sign for the Monache Jeep Trail and go left. The jeep trail starts a short ways up this spur road.
The Monache Jeep Trail, an interesting ride itself, intersects the Blackrock Mountain Trail near the start of the Granite-Broder Trail and the Jackass Peak Trail. Both of these trails head south from the Monache area and end near the Fish Creek Campground, east of Blackrock Station. The Granite-Broder Trail and the Jackass Peak Trail both climb to the ridge south of Monache, in the vicinity of Jackass Peak. The Granite-Broder Trail continues south past Smith Meadow and Powell Meadow before crossing NF 22S05 near the Troy Meadow Campground. The Jackass Peak Trail tops the ridge right near Jackass Peak and intersects the Jackass Creek Trail, an excellent downhill run that leads directly to Fish Creek Campground.
Heading further north on the Monache Jeep Trail leads to Monache Meadow, and an access road leading to the Bakeoven Trail, one of the few trails in the area signed expressly for bicycle traffic. There are some excellent campsites in the Monache Meadow area, but a short-wheelbase 4x4 vehicle is required to get there. The best sites are along the South Fork Kern River, northeast of Monache Meadow. These sites are popular, though, and the area can be crowded.
There are only 2 developed campgrounds conveniently located near the best riding. The first, Fish Creek Campground is located at the lower end of the Jackass Creek Trail. The second, Troy Meadow Campground, is slightly less convenient for ride-out/ride-in access, and is more popular with the ORV crowd. Kennedy Meadows Campground is further from the riding, but closer to Kennedy Meadows Store, making for easier beer runs.
The best camping, if you can do without pit toilets and picnic tables, is in widely dispersed primitive sites that are very conveniently located near good trails. If the right spot is chosen, several days' riding can be done without moving camp.
In primitive camping situations, following minimum impact camping guidelines (PDF document) is a good idea. Since there will be few or no people in camp when you leave for the day's ride, store food properly so bears cannot help themselves to your goodies. Water is generally available at streams in the area, but must be filtered, chemically treated, or boiled for 5-10 minutes.
Following are some of the best primitive base camp areas...
Fish Creek-Jackass Creek Confluence
This area is immediately accross the road from Fish Creek Campground, and has many good dispersed sites. This is a good base camp for the Jackass Creek Trail, Albanita Trail, and Granite-Broder Trail. Also, creeks nearby provide a ready water source.
Smith Meadows Area
The Smith Meadows area is a picturesque meadow complex nestled among large granite domes. The access road is paved most of the way, and there are many dispersed sites, some in beautiful aspen groves. A base camp in this area provides access to the Albanita Trail, Fish Creek Trail, Jackass Creek Trail, Jackass Peak Trail, and Granite-Broder Trail. To reach the Smith Meadows area, take NF 21S03 north from Blackrock Station, then go right on NF 21S36. This road is paved through Smith Meadow, then the pavement ends closer to Granite Knob.
This road, just north of Little Horse Meadow, runs along a broad, flat ridgetop between the Little Horse Trail and the Beach Trail. There are excellent campsites here, far from the main road and very peaceful. This area makes a nice base camp for the Little Horse Trail, Beach Trail, Albanita Trail, and the western half of the Blackrock Mountain Trail. To get to NF 20S96, take NF 21S03 north from Blackrock Station, then go left on NF 20S25 and continue to NF 20S31 and go left. At a 'T' intersection, go left on NF 20S96.
The Osa Meadow area has some beautiful campsites, and is located at the top of both the Little Horse Trail and the Beach Trail, and the western end of the Blackrock Mountain Trail. To get there, take NF 21S03 north from Blackrock Station, then go left on NF 20S25 and continue to Osa Meadow. The road splits at the meadow, and the best sites are on the right (north) branch.
Mosquito Meadow Area
The Mosquito Meadow area is just below Sherman Pass, near the first few miles of the Cannell Meadow Trail. The road, NF 22S19, is paved to it's end, and there are a few good campsites. If you are doing the Cannell Plunge as a private shuttle, rather than the MRA commercial shuttle or tour, this is a nice alternative to the dusty camping down on the Kern River. To get there, take the Sherman Pass Road from east or west to NF 22S19 and go south. The Cannell Meadow Trail parallels the road much of the way, crossing at a couple points.