Is the Kern River More Dangerous Than the Mississippi?

Written by Jennifer Geer
Published: August 2, 2023
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Although majestic and beautiful, the mighty Mississippi River is known as one of the most dangerous in the world. Thanks to its powerful flow, strong undercurrents, floating debris, deadly creatures lurking within, and polluted waters, it can be a menacing waterway for swimming and other water sports.

However, it’s not the only threatening river in North America. Other rivers in the U.S. also boast dangerous reptiles, sneaky undertows, and wild rapids, and they can give the Mississippi a run for its money. 

For example, California’s Kern River has plenty of perils, some of which are hidden beneath the surface of this picturesque waterway. Is the Kern River more dangerous than the Mississippi? Read on to find out all about the dangers that may be lurking in the Kern River.

About the Kern River

Detail of the Kern River near Kernville in Southern California. A popular fly fishing location.

The Kern River passes through rugged and steep gorges where whitewater rapids surge.

©Rachael Martin/Shutterstock.com

The Kern River flows for 165 miles, originating in the Sierra Nevada in Sequoia National Park. The river used to drain into the now-dry Buena Vista Lake and Kern Lake. However, since the late 1800s, the Kern River was diverted to empty into Isabella Lake. Although much of the water also gets redirected to the California Aqueduct or used for irrigating farmland.

The North Fork of the river passes through the Sequoia National Forest and the North Fork Kern River Canyon. On its way, it flows past unique granite protrusions, rock formations, and rare wetland habitat at Kern Lakes.

The South Fork flows through a diverse range of California landscapes, including picturesque waterfalls, open meadows, rocky granite outcrops, and the Domeland Wilderness. 

Both river forks pass through rugged and steep gorges where whitewater rapids surge. In fact, with its gradient of 30 feet per mile, the North Fork is one of the steepest and wildest rivers in North America. The Forks Run is an almost continuous stretch of dangerous Class IV and V rapids.

Recreation on the Kern River

Young person rafting on the river, extreme and fun sport at tourist attraction

The spectacular scenery, and adventurous rapids, make the Kern River a popular choice for whitewater rafting.

©PPstock/Shutterstock.com

The Kern River flows through the gorgeous landscapes of California. An outdoor adventurists’ paradise, there are plenty of activities in and around the river. People flock to the area to view nature, camp near the banks, hike along the trails, and fish. The river’s strong flows also make it a popular spot for whitewater rafting, and there are numerous swimming holes where people enjoy taking a relaxing dip.

Dangers of the Kern River

The river is well known for its dangers, and a sign at the mouth of Kern Canyon warns visitors, “Danger. Stay Out. Stay Alive.” and tallies the deaths since 1968. Currently, 325 people have lost their lives to the Kern River.

Although the Kern River is a popular location for water sports enthusiasts and nature lovers, it’s also considered one of the deadliest rivers in the United States. Because it’s fed by the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevadas, water levels can be unpredictable and rise suddenly at any time.

Further, in the canyons the river flows through, the riverbanks have smooth granite rocks, which can cause people walking along the river to fall in. And while there are safe spots for swimming, some areas of the river have sharp gradients and deadly rapids. The river also has many branches, boulders, and trees hiding beneath the surface along the bottom that can shred inflatables floating above.

The Kern River vs. The Mississippi: A Comparison

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is 2,340 miles long and flows through ten different states.

©RaksyBH/Shutterstock.com

We know the Kern River can be dangerous, but how does it compare to the Mississippi? Let’s take a look at some similarities and differences between the two.

Size

In the U.S., the Mississippi is second only to the Missouri River in length. It flows for 2,340 miles through ten different states with a maximum depth is 200 feet.

In contrast, the Kern is a short river, flowing only for 165 miles through California, and its maximum depth is about 100 feet.

Rate of Water Flow

The Mississippi River has a flow rate of 12,000 cubic feet per second. Although, during storms and flooding conditions, the rate has been reported to be around 609,600 cubic meters per second.

The typical water flow for the Kern River year-round is 600 cubic feet per second. During the summer, the river can reach around 7,000 cubic feet per second. However, rates of 45,000 cubic feet per second have been reported during storms.

Hydraulics, Holes, and Eddies

Both rivers have areas of swirling waters that can sweep swimmers underneath the surface, trapping them underwater. The velocity can be so strong, even a life jacket won’t stop a person from getting pulled under.

Dangerous Creatures

Bull shark facts - mouth of a bull shark

Bull sharks occasionally leave the Gulf of Mexico and travel up the Mississippi River.

©Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock.com

Both rivers are home to some dangerous creatures lurking within and around the waters. 

Mississippi River: Some of the deadly creatures you may find swimming in the Mississippi include bull sharks, alligators, and the venomous cottonmouth. Along its shores, you may spot black bears and copperheads.

Kern River: You may encounter Northern Pacific rattlesnakes, mountain lions, Western rattlesnakes, and black bears along the banks of the Kern River. 

Is the Kern River More Dangerous Than the Mississippi?

The Kern River, a tourist and recreational attraction, turns wild and treacherous at this point, a danger to swimmers and boaters alike.

Hazards, such as logs, branches, and debris may be hiding beneath the surface of the Kern River.

©Richard Thornton/Shutterstock.com

What’s the verdict? Is the Kern River more dangerous than the mighty Mississippi? The answer is, it’s a toss-up.¬†Both rivers are full of dangers. Which one is more hazardous depends on the time of year, water levels, flow rate, and hidden water hazards.¬†

The Kern River is gorgeous and wild, and extremely popular for recreation. However, hiding beneath the surface of the sparkling waters are submerged logs, debris, and rocks. These hazards can pin people below the surface, where they can get caught in fierce undercurrents.

The Mississippi River has even higher rates of flow. Further, the Mississippi has plenty of underwater debris, and along the water’s edge, you may see exposed rebar, broken concrete, and metal cables. 

In conclusion, both rivers are dangerous, and swimmers, boaters, rafters, and even those walking alongside them should be wary of the hazards.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Richard Thornton/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Jennifer Geer is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on animals, news topics, travel, and weather. Jennifer holds a Master's Degree from the University of Tulsa, and she has been researching and writing about news topics and animals for over four years. A resident of Illinois, Jennifer enjoys hiking, gardening, and caring for her three pugs.

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