The BEST Kern River Dispersed Camping

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The Kern River winds its way through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and is an incredible destination for rafting, hiking, and other outdoor recreation. This Wild and Scenic River also provides a great summer camping destination with multiple campgrounds located along its length. One of the most popular, and our favorite, way to experience camping here is to pitch your tent at one of the many Kern River dispersed camping sites situated along the river’s shores.

These dispersed campgrounds offer free camping and a great way to enjoy the surrounding wilderness and this beautiful river.

We’ve created this Kern River dispersed camping guide to help you understand the rules, regulations, and best options for planning a camping trip along the river.

Kern River Dispersed Camping Guide

The Basics

The following sections contain all the must know information you need to plan a successful dispersed camping trip along the Kern River. This includes everything from when to camp, what to bring, campfire regulations, and more.

For starters, it is important to understand that dispersed camping on the Kern River is different than typical dispersed camping. Rather than having your pick of sites off a forest service road, these camping areas are designated dispersed sites located along Highway 99 as it parallels the Kern River. While these sites are still free and provide a great summer escape, don’t plan on tons of solitude or a quiet camping experience!

When to Dispersed Camp on the Kern River

Dispersed camping along the Kern River is generally a summer months activity, although many of the dispersed camping areas are open year round. You’ll enjoy the best weather from May – September, but the shoulder seasons can provide a nice break from the crowds.

During the winter months many of the access roads in Sequoia National Forest are closed, although a camping trip is still possible at a few sites. However, you’ll need to be prepared for snow and freezing temperatures if you plan to camp from October – April.

The busiest time on the river is July and August, and you can expect to find the Kern River dispersed camping areas at, or near capacity. If you’re planning a trip during these months you’ll want to arrive as early as you can and also consider camping during the week to avoid the heavy weekend crowds.

Fall along the Kern River
Fall makes an excellent time to dispersed camp along the Kern River.

What to Bring

Coming prepared for a dispersed camping trip means being self-sufficient without the amenities of a developed campground. Although most of the dispersed sites along the Kern River have restrooms, and basic trash service during the summer, you’ll still need to have a few specific items to make your trip enjoyable.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are some of our favorite items specifically for Kern River dispersed camping:

  • Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
  • Portable water container – Most of the camping areas included in this guide do not have a potable water source. As such, a portable water container is essential.
  • Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!

Permits, Fees, and Campfires

The Kern River and associated dispersed campsites are all located within the Sequoia National Forest. As such, USFS rules around dispersed camping apply to all of the camping areas included in this guide.

You can find more information on dispersed camping in Sequoia National Forest here.

In general, there aren’t any permits or fees to be paid when dispersed camping along the Kern River. The one exception to this is at the Old Goldledge dispersed camping area which requires a permit on holiday weekends in the summer. Additionally, there are a few key rules and regulations you’ll want to adhere to:

  • The maximum stay is limited to 14 days within a 30 day period
  • Do not camp within 25′ of the Kern River. This distance is greater at specific campsites, read below for more info.
  • Glass containers are prohibitted at all dispersed campsites along the Kern River.
  • Please practice Leave No Trace camping
  • Obey all fire restrictions. More on this below.

For all of the campsites in this guide we always recommend contacting the relevant USFS Ranger District where the campsite is located to confirm current conditions, camping options, and any closures. Contact information is below:

California Campfire Permits

California has a permit system for any campfires on federal lands and private property owned by another person. The state has seen nearly endless devastating wildfires over the past several years, so fire restrictions should be top of mind before you consider having a campfire. This is doubly true for the Kern River, where 2021 saw the French Creek fire impact many of the camping areas in this guide.

Prior to having a campfire please check current restrictions and secure the necessary California Campfire Permit.

You can request a campfire permit for your trip here.

We can’t stress this enough as being a responsible forest user is essential to preventing wildfires and preserving our incredible forests!

Campfire along the Kern River.
Please be sure to follow all fire regulations when camping on the Kern River.

Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

Dispersed Camping on the Kern River

The following section includes an overview of the nine designated dispersed camping areas along the Kern River. These sites vary in location, river access, and nearby recreation opportunities, so our hope is that these descriptions help you choose one that works well for you.

In addition, our Kern River dispersed camping map below gives an overview of each site’s location with a full description included in the following section. Enjoy!

Black Gulch South Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: Yes
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: May – September
Map

The Black Gulch South dispersed camping area is the further south of your camping options and the only dispersed camping on the Lower Kern River. As such, this is a popular destination for folks from Bakersfield and other areas south as it is the easiest to access. You’re close to the famous Miracle Hot Springs here as well as the Freeway Ridge 4WD trail. The area is open to camping from May – September.

Black Gulch South does not have a water source (other than filtering from the river), but it does have a vault toilet and trash bins when the camping area is open.

Since this is such a popular place to camp we recommend arriving early on summer weekends. There are quite a few areas to spread out, but please be sure to avoid camping close to the river itself here.

Chico Flat Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: Open year-round
Map

Chico Flat Dispersed Camping area is located north of Kernville on the upper Kern River. This is a very popular place to camp, and as such the USFS has instituted some strict regulations on where you are allowed to camp here. Per these rules, you cannot camp within 350 feet of the river at Chico Flat. The area within that border is day-use only, and you will be asked to move and possibly be fined if you attempt to set up camp within that area.

Regulations aside, Chico Flat is a great place to spend a few nights as you’re close to Lake Isabella and the river is nice and mellow in the immediate vicinity.

Chico Flat is open for camping year-round, although you’ll only find trash service and portable toilets set-up during the summer months. There is no water source here, so please come prepared with all that you’ll need.

Chico Flat Dispersed camping on the Kern River
Chico Flat Dispersed Camping Area. Photo credit USFS.

Corral Creek Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate to Busy
Season: Open year-round
Map

The Corral Creek dispersed camping area is located on the north fork of the Kern River, just up river from the confluence with Corral Creek. This site doesn’t offer much shade, but is often times a bit less crowded than some of the other options in the area. This is a mellower part of the river, so Corral Creek tends to attract more families or those who plan on doing a bit of swimming.

The camping area is open year-round, but you’ll only find restrooms and trash services available during the summer months. There isn’t much privacy at Corral Creek as the camping area is really just a large pull out off the highway. However, access is easy and you can’t beat the scenery!

Given the nature of the campsite, it can accommodate some larger vans and even a trailer or two. That being said, please be considerate of other campers and try to not take up too much space.

Springhill Dispersed Camping Area

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: May – September
Map

The Springhill Dispersed camping area is one of the largest along the Kern River. There are two pullout areas, sometimes referred to as Lower and Upper Springhill, that are connected by a few informal trails. The campsite is generally only open in the summer months when you can expect portable toilets as well as trash service. There is no water, other than potentially filtering from the river.

Springhill is located in an idyllic spot along the river, far enough from Kernville to feel out there while still being relatively easy to reach.

As you might expect, this is a popular place to camp given its location and nearby recreational activities. While the camping area is large, you should still plan to arrive early to secure the best stop. Just remember to camp far enough away from the river itself!

Springhill Dispersed Camping area
Springhill Dispersed Camping. Photo credit USFS.

Old Goldledge Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: Open year-round
Map

Old Goldledge dispersed camping on the Kern River is one of the top spots to camp for those looking to do some fishing. Situated on the Upper Kern River this spot is very popular with anglers. So popular in fact that over the past few years the USFS has instituted a permit process to limit the number of campers here on the busy summer holiday weekends. The permits are free and can be obtained on a first-come, first served basis by visiting the Forest Service website above.

Camping here is permitted year-round, although you’ll only find bathrooms and trash pickup available during the summer camping season.

There is no water source at Old Goldledge, so unless you plan to filter it from the river you’ll need to come with all you need for your trip.

Ant Canyon Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: Open year-round
Map

Ant Canyon Dispersed Campground is located at a lovely bend in the Kern River and makes a great place to spend the night. This is a popular spot, so expect to share it with other, but you can’t beat the beautiful surroundings and river access. The camping area is located between the river and the road, although many are tempted by what looks like more camping across the highway. Don’t be fooled as camping isn’t permitted here and you’re likely to get a visit from the Ranger telling you to move.

There are basic facilities (portable toilets and trash bins) during the summer months, but these are removed during the winter so plan accordingly.

Most of the parking at Ant Canyon is pretty tight, so we don’t recommend it for larger rigs or trailers. If you’re in a van you’ll likely be fine, but otherwise you might prefer to look elsewhere.

Chamise Flat Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Season: Open year-round
Map

Chamise Flat is one of the quieter and more spread out dispersed camping options along the Kern River. The individual camping areas have more privacy than is typical at other sites, and because you’re a bit further north along the river you tend to get fewer campers. The camping area is open year-round, but as with all the other sites there are only toilets and trash service in the summer months.

The campsites are oriented in a north-south direction parallels to the road and fit a variety of vehicle sizes. All but the largest RVs should be able to find something that works for them here.

Calkins Flat Dispersed Area

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Season: Open year-round
Map

Located just up the road from Chamise Flat you’ll find the Calkins Flat dispersed camping area on the Kern River. This is a smaller camping area that is more suited to tents than trailers as many of the pull outs and parking areas are a bit tight. Floating the river is popular here as is the nearby Packsaddle Trail.

Calkins Flat is open year-round but only provides services during the summer months from May – September.

Although you can expect fewer campers given how far north Calkins Flat is, we still recommend arriving early on summer weekends to secure your campsite.

Brush Creek Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Seasonally
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Season: May – September
Map

The final option for dispersed camping along the Kern River is the Brush Creek Dispersed Campground. Located all the way north near Sherman Pass Rd and the Johnsondale Bridge, this is the last place dispersed camping is permitted before the river turns away from the highway. Bathrooms are available during the summer months.

Be aware that while there are mellow sections of the river in the area, there are some larger rapids immediately adjacent to the campsite. If you plan to float or swim in the river, please be prepared and avoid this section.

Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great Kern River dispersed camping trip.

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!

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