What’s in the Kern River and Is It Safe to Swim In? 

Written by Kyle Glatz
Updated: August 8, 2023
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California was in the news in 2021 and 2022 due to its water scarcity issues. The Lower Kern River is a body of water that is often mentioned when droughts arise since it is used for drinking water and farm irrigation. However, the upper part of the river is well-known for the opportunities it presents for people that enjoy whitewater rafting and camping. Discover what’s in the Kern River and if it is safe to swim in. We’ll show you where the river runs, the animals that live in and near the river, and whether it’s safe to take a dip.

About the Kern River

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

The river is a fast-moving body of water that attracts fishers and boaters.

©Rachael Martin/Shutterstock.com

The Kern River is a 164-mile river that flows through California near the southern part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The North Fork of the Kern River’s source is near the Kings-Kern Divide, a ridge connecting the Great Western Divide to the Sierra Nevada range at the Sequoia National Park. Specifically, the North Fork Kern River’s headwaters are found at Lake South America.

From there, the North Fork of the Kern River, or the “Upper Kern,” generally flows south before turning southwest near Lake Isabella. The South Fork Kern River, the largest tributary of the Kern River, joins the river at this lake.

After this point, the main stem of the Kern River, also called the Lower Kern, flows southwest through Bakersfield. The river is largely diverted for its water supply in this area. So, the riverbed is dry to the southwest of Bakersfield, far from the former mouth at Lake Buena Vista.

The reasons why the water ends here are complex and have to do with laws concerning water rights and water purchases in the past. Essentially, the water ends up being used for drinking and farming. For our purposes, though, the Kern River ends outside of Bakersfield, California.

Where Is the Kern River on a Map?

Finding the main stem of the river is rather simple. California State Route 178 runs alongside the river starting in Bakersfield all the way to Lake Isabella. Beyond that, though, one would have to follow the South Fork Kern River east out of the lake and the North Fork Kern River to the north.

The river is not exceptionally long or wide. Yet, its closeness to Bakersfield and Lake Isabella makes it easy to find.  

Is the River Polluted?

Drought Impact on Corn Crops

Without water from the river, many farms would not have the water they need.

©iStock.com/batuhan toker

Parts of the Kern River are polluted, but not all of it. Specifically, portions of the Lower Kern River are polluted by agricultural runoff. The water quality in the Upper Kern is good enough for people to take part in recreational activities. Yet, that does not mean people should swim in the Kern River. We’ll discuss more about that in the following section.

The American Rivers organization has named Lower Kern River one of the most endangered rivers in the US. The reason is that the waters from this part of the river have been captured and divvied up for drinking water and agriculture. Instead of the river running along its natural path, it runs dry when it reaches beyond Bakersfield.

So, the problem with the Kern River is not so much what is in the river, the issue is what is not in the river: water.

What Animals Live in the Kern River?

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). A popular sport fish. It is native to Eastern North America.

Brook trout are just one species that people love to catch in these waters.

©K Steve Cope/Shutterstock.com

Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, black bass, striped bass, brook trout, and many other types of fish live in the Kern River. The river and its associated lakes are filled with fish that bring people from all around to catch them. Fishing is allowed throughout the entire year on the river, but some fishing limits do apply to some trout species. Always make sure to check the local laws before going fishing.

Also, visitors need to consider that many different fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and amphibians live near the river. Fortunately, people will not find any animals that can cause them great harm like sharks or alligators.  

Some of the animals that live on the banks of the river can be dangerous to people. For example, black bears and mountain lions are two large mammals that could hurt or kill people in the region. People that go fishing or hiking in this region need to know about this potential danger. Moreover, they need to understand how to properly behave around these animals and how to survive an encounter with them.

Can you Swim in the Kern River?

Longest Rivers in California - Kern River

Parts of the river have whitewater boating opportunities, but they can be dangerous.


Kern River has very strong currents, cold water, and many hazards below the waterline that make it too dangerous to swim in. Roughly 325 people have drowned in the Kern River since 1968. As a result, drowning is the leading cause of death on the river. Kern County emergency services are frequently called upon to help people that find themselves helpless in these waters.

Nevertheless, the Upper Kern River is renowned for its whitewater boating opportunities. The river attracts people from all over the country to this spot. However, individuals who take part in that activity do so at their own hazard.  

The river is exceptionally dangerous to people that enter the waters. Therefore, nobody should swim in the water. People riding in boats should always have a life preserver on just in case they fall into the water. So, if you’re going out on the water, always do your utmost to follow safety guidelines.

So, what is in the Kern River and is it safe to swim in? Dangerous waters and many different species of fish are in the river. Also, the upper portion of the river is wildly dangerous for swimmers and should be avoided. More important than what is in the river is where it ends. Between drought and water usage, the Kern River’s flow has been altered. Court cases and government interventions will determine whether the water flows to its former mouth ever again.  

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

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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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