Can it really be called travel if the destination lies only 50 miles outside of Bakersfield? If you follow the Kern River up Highway 178, you will find another world, the old West town of Kernville, which surprisingly doesn't require a passport. This town is a gem just five miles north of Lake Isabella, and was at one time the largest center of culture and commerce in Kern County.
Walking down the streets of Kernville is like walking onto a John Wayne movie set, with some modern updates. The storefronts are covered and wooden, with carved signs: "Barbershop," "Kernville Saloon," "Post Office." The town remains in an era when cities were created with each profession sitting side-by-side: the doctor, the dentist and the general store.
Most locals find their way to Kernville by way of white water rafting or boating in Lake Isabella, and those who treasure the town make it their main destination. Inns and bed-and-breakfasts with scenic views of the river are situated throughout the area.
If you enjoy the great outdoors, then camp, because campsites are plentiful, and it is the quintessential American vacation. The French Gulch and Hungry Gulch campgrounds are popular sites to pitch a tent, but be certain to make reservations because on any given Friday afternoon, campers roll in and spaces become scarce. September and October can be considered ideal months for camping in the area because days are warm enough for water activities, and evenings are cool enough to warrant a campfire.
If you want to take a break from "roughing it," a visit to the Kern Valley Golf Course, antique stores, cafes and museums could be points of interest for you.
"The museum-going people are pleasantly surprised to step into the Kernville Museum, because it is about the Old West, and you can't get that many other places," says Ron Bolyard, president of the museum. They average 1,200 visitors a month, drawing a large number from the Netherlands, among many other countries. The museum was established in 1969, and is filled entirely with donated pieces, most of them everyday tools from the 19th century to better educate the visitor about life in the early mining period. Outside is a stagecoach and an original covered wagon. Twice a month, weather permitting, the museum shows old movies and serves popcorn outside for free. Recently, the featured movie was "Stagecoach," starring John Wayne.
"Nuui Cunni," or "our house," is the name of the nearby Indian cultural center including a museum, library, and 5.5 acres of native plants. Outside are recreated traditional structures like a tule hut and sweat lodge. The open spaces are used for a variety of social gatherings.
Fishing is particularly popular, as the upper Kern River is the birthplace of the golden trout, a fish that now inhabits many high altitude regions in the world. Fly-fishing conditions are especially good in the Kern River just above Kernville, with plenty of placid spots to cast a line. In town at the general store, you can ask the locals about some of the prime places to fish, because that's just the kind of town Kernville is — friendly.
The Pigsty is a friendly place to get a great hot breakfast. For lunch, there are many delis on Main Street and cool covered porches to relax on. From here, the pace of life on Main Street is just right. Many antique stores line the main drag. One of the most trafficked is Kernville Antiques and Gifts, which sells a mix of Kernville souvenirs, Native American artifacts, and old Western pieces.
For a cool evening in Kernville, the Kern River Brewery is the place to be. After a long day on the river, nothing tastes quite like locally brewed ale. On tap are four: Isabella Blonde, Sequoia Red, Just Outstanding IPA, and Class V Stout, named after the classes of river that rafters and kayakers designate (Class V is the roughest). This is also a nod to one of the brewery's founders, Rebecca Giddens, a local world-class kayaker and 2004 Olympic silver medalist in kayaking. The menu is also superb, the Kern Burger coming highly recommended with special Class V Stout mustard made in the brewery. Or, if it coincides with your plans, go to Taco Tuesday, with a special on beef tacos and beer. This brewery really does seem to be a place where everybody knows your name, unless, of course, you are visiting. But with a couple more trips up to Kernville under your belt, those rights can be yours, too.