Guide to Kern River Dispersed Camping

Winding through California’s magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains, Kern River is one of the state’s best destinations for dispersed camping, hiking, and rafting. One can find many dispersed campsites along the course of Kern River, providing outdoor enthusiasts with unforgettable sights, sounds, and smells. 

And the best thing here is that, unlike “regular” camping (staying at developed campgrounds), dispersed camping can be done entirely free.

To explain the rules and regulations roundabout this activity, as well as to assist you in finding the best camping spot in the area, I’ve created this detailed and informative Kern River dispersed camping guide. 

Overview of Free Camping Near Kern River

Some of the best dispersed camping spots in California are along Kern River. Here, you’ll find all the essential information you’ll need to consider before heading to Kern River for a dispersed camping adventure. This includes info on campfire regulations, which gear to pack, when to embark on this journey, and more. 

The first and most crucial thing every camper needs to understand is that camping at Kern River differs somewhat from your standard dispersed camping. 

Instead of having many camping sites just off a Forest Service road to pick from, campers have to choose one of the designated dispersed sites along Highway 99 (which follows the course of the river). 

Although these campsites are free and provide an excellent summer escape, don’t expect too much solitude – they’re pretty busy, especially on weekends. 

When Should I Camp at Kern River? 

Camping along Kern River

Most folks who camp along this scenic Californian river do so during summer. However, many of the camping areas at Kern River are open year-round. 

Come here between May and September if you want to experience good weather. On the other hand, those looking to escape the crowds should camp at this river during the shoulder seasons. 

If you’re interested in wintertime camping, remember that many of Sequoia National Forest’s access roads are closed during that period. However, it is still possible to camp at a few sites, although you’ll have to prepare yourself for freezing temperatures and possible snowfall. 

The dispersed camping areas alongside the Kern River are the most crowded during mid to late summer. During this period, the campsites are at full or near-full capacity. 

The recipe for avoiding heavy weekend crowds is relatively simple – head to Kern River on a workday. But even so, you will still have to arrive there early in the day if you want to secure a good spot. 

What Should I Pack for Kern River Dispersed Camping? 

Packing for a camping trip

When free camping, one needs to be self-sufficient. This is because dispersed camping areas typically lack amenities or facilities. This can be particularly difficult for those who’ve only camped at developed campgrounds before. 

Fortunately, most of Kern River’s dispersed campsites feature restrooms and seasonally-available trash removal services. But still, you’ll want to equip yourself with a few specific pieces of camping gear to have a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable trip.

I’m sure that you already have the most vital equipment, like a sleeping bag and a tent. Here are three additional items that you’ll want to pack for your Kern River outdoor adventure: 

  • Cooler – Nobody likes to drink warm water, soda, wine, or beer on a hot summer day. A quality cooler is a piece of essential camping equipment for summer camping trips in California. 
  • Portable water containers – Most of the dispersed campsites listed in this article do not have access to drinking water. Make sure to bring a few portable containers full of clean water. 
  • Camping stove – To keep your camping group’s spirits high, you’ll want to prepare delicious breakfasts and dinners. The easiest way to make those is with a quality camping stove. 

Fees, Permits, and Campfire Regulations

Campsite with a campfire

The Kern River and the dispersed camping areas on its shores are all situated within one of California’s most beautiful pieces of wilderness – Sequoia National Forest. So, the entire region is subject to rules and regulations imposed by the United States Forest Service (USFS). 

Generally, those who camp along the Kern River don’t have to pay fees or obtain permits. There is one exception to this “rule”, though – you’ll need to obtain a permit to camp at the Old Goldledge dispersed camping area during the summer weekends. 

Here are a few fundamental regulations and rules you’ll want to keep in mind while camping along Kern River: 

  • Adhere to all the rules concerning campfires. 
  • Follow the Leave No Trace principles while staying at these dispersed camping areas. 
  • Using glass containers is not allowed at any dispersed campsites along the Kern River. 
  • Pitch your tent at least 25 feet away from the river. You’ll have to stay even further away from the water at some of the places described in this guide. 
  • Within 30 days, outdoor enthusiasts cannot stay at any of these campsites for more than two weeks. 

It’s best to contact the relevant USFS Ranger District for the most up-to-date information regarding camping options, conditions, and potential closures. 

Here’s the contact information for the Kern River Ranger District. 

Campfire Permits in California 

The Golden State uses a unique permit system that covers all campfires on public lands and privately-owned properties. This permit system should be on the top of your mind if you plan to camp in California, at the Kern River, or anywhere else. 

As you probably already know, this state has gone through several disastrous wildfires in recent times. This is double true for the dispersed camping area we’re talking about in this guide, whose many campsites were impacted by the devastating 2021 French Creek fire. 

So, before heading over to Kern River, it is paramount that you check the current regulations concerning campfires and obtain the permit. You can secure it by filling out this form.

The “Leave No Trace” Principles & Dispersed Camping 

Pack Your Trash sign

The Leave No Trace organization has come up with a series of principles that are now followed by all outdoor enthusiasts who want to preserve the purity of the wild regions. 

To put it simply, following these principles means minimizing your impact on the environment and preserving it for future visitors. They are as follows: 

  • Properly dispose of your waste. When answering nature’s call, do it far away from rivers and lakes and bury the waste with a shovel. Using a portable toilet is the best option. 
  • Don’t try to follow or approach the area’s wild animals. Keep your supplies and trash out of their reach. 
  • Planning ahead and adequately preparing for the trip is essential. Pitch your tent only in those areas where dispersed camping is allowed. 
  • Never leave your campfire unattended. If there’s a fire ring at your camping spot, make sure to use it. That’s always a far better solution than building a new campfire. 
  • Pay attention to other outdoor enthusiasts. Be a responsible camper, and don’t be loud – let everyone nearby enjoy nature’s sounds. 
  • Always use existing camping spots instead of creating new ones. Ensure that the ground you’ll be pitching your tent on is not fragile. 
  • Finally, don’t take stuff from the campsite home. Just pick up your garbage and leave the place in the same state you found it. 

The Best Dispersed Camping Areas at Kern River 

I’ll take a detailed look at Kern River’s nine best dispersed camping areas. 

These areas vary in recreation opportunities, river access, and the general location, so I hope the following descriptions will assist you in selecting the one that caters to your requirements. 

Chico Flat Dispersed Camping Area 

Kernville, California
  • Map 
  • Season: Open year-round 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available  

The first dispersed camping area I’ll be taking a look is on the upper Kern River, north of the small town of Kernville. It’s one of the busiest dispersed campsites on my list, so it’s no wonder that the United States Forest Service has imposed a few strict regulations regarding the exact spots campers can stay at. 

One of these rules is that the campers who come here have to stay at least 350 feet away from the Kern River. What is more, the entire Chico Flat dispersed campground is day-use only. Folks who try to set up a multi-day camp in the area risk considerable fines – if you’re lucky, the rangers will only ask you to move away. 

That said, Chico Flat dispersed campground is an outstanding choice if you want to spend a day in the backcountry. Here, the river is mellow rather than wild, contributing to the area’s tranquillity and peacefulness. You will also be very close to Lake Isabella, one of California’s best-kept secrets. 

The Chico Flat dispersed campground is accessible year-round. However, its amenities – portable toilets and trash service – are available only during summer. Make sure to bring plenty of clean water as there are no drinkable water sources here. 

Black Gulch South Dispersed Camping Area 

Nature Around Kern River
  • Map 
  • Season: May – September 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Yes  

This is the only Kern River dispersed camping area on my list situated on the lower part of the river. It is much further south than all other options described in this guide, and, as such, it is much easier to access (which is why it’s very popular with camping enthusiasts from the nearby city of Bakersfield). 

With Black Gulch South being such a top-rated camping destination, it is essential to arrive early in the day to get a good spot. Unfortunately, unlike the camping area described above, this one is open only from May to September. 

Another consequence of the area’s heavy usage is that folks coming here must camp at least 25 feet away from the river. On the brighter side, those who come here will also be very close to the Freeway Ridge 4WD trail and the famous Miracle Hot Springs. 

Regarding hydration, you have two choices – to bring your own water or filter some from the river. The only amenities available at Black Gulch South are trash cans and vault toilets. 

Springhill Dispersed Camping Area 

Kern River in Fall
  • Map
  • Season: May – September 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available 

If you’re seeking a place with a lot of room, look no further than the Springhill dispersed camping area – it’s one of the largest ones along the Kern River. Like Black Gulch South, this one is open to camping enthusiasts from May to September. 

This is a very idyllic area to stay in, even though it can become quite busy during the summer months. Accessing Springhill dispersed camping area is very easy, but the place is still far enough from the town of Kernville to have that “out there” feeling. 

Due to its scenic surroundings and the nearby recreational activities, the campsite can get very crowded, and arriving early at one of the prime spots is essential. Also, don’t forget to pitch your tent at least 25 feet away from the water’s edge. 

Once you arrive here, you’ll find that the campsite is separated into two pull-out areas, the Upper and the Lower Springhill. As for the amenities, you can expect seasonally-available trash service and portable toilets. You’ll be left to your own devices when it comes to water – either bring some with you or filter it from the river. 

Corral Creek Camping Area 

Sequoia National Forest in California
  • Map 
  • Season: Open year-round 
  • Crowds: Moderate to busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available

The next dispersed camping area on my list is close to the confluence with Corral Creek, on the north fork of the Kern River. Its name is Corral Creek dispersed campground. It’s a trendy place with families and swimmers – here, the river is a bit more mellow. 

It is open year-round. What is more, it features seasonally-available trash services and restrooms. Unfortunately, there’s not much shade at Corral Creek dispersed campground, which is why it isn’t as crowded as some of the other options in this guideline. 

Another thing worth mentioning here is that this site is just one large pull-off from the road. And while this means that you can’t expect much in terms of privacy, the camp’s scenery is unbeatable, and accessing this place is as easy as it gets. 

Given its nature, Corral Creek dispersed campground easily accommodates larger trailers and recreational vehicles. That doesn’t mean you should take as much room as possible – be considerate of other camping enthusiasts! 

Ant Canyon Camping Area 

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

Situated at a charming bend in the river, Ant Canyon dispersed campground is a phenomenal dispersed camping area to stay at. Due to its easy river access and picturesque surroundings, it is pretty trendy. Expect to share it with many other campers. 

The Ant Canyon dispersed campground is between Mountain Highway 99 and the Kern River. I’m saying this because many people coming here think they can also pitch their tents across the road – don’t do that. Camping there is not allowed, and the local rangers will almost certainly visit those who try to do so. 

Furthermore, parking at the Ant Canyon dispersed campground is relatively tight, so coming here with a large recreational vehicle is not advised. You shouldn’t have any issues if you own a smaller van, but if your RV is big, your best bet would be to stay at some of the other places described in this article. 

Those who come here can expect the most basic facilities – trash bins and seasonally-available portable toilets, which are removed during the cold-weather months. Make sure to bring plenty of clean water here. 

Old Goldledge

Fishing on the Kern River
Photo by bahniuk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Map 
  • Season: Open year-round 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available 

If you’re a camping enthusiast who is also interested in fishing, look no further. Incredibly popular with anglers, the Old Goldledge dispersed campground is located on the Upper Kern River and has quite a lot to offer. 

Over recent years, this dispersed camping area became so crowded during summer that the United States Forest Service had to develop a unique permit system. This system aims to protect the area’s natural beauty by limiting the number of people who can camp here during the peak season. 

The permits are free and cannot be bought or reserved. The campsite is first come, first served. You can get one of these by visiting the United States Forest Service website. 

The campsite is open year-round and provides its visitors with that “out there in the wild” feel. In terms of amenities, it sports seasonally available restrooms and trash pickup. Make sure to bring plenty of water if you’re not planning to filter it from the Kern River. 

If you like camping in Cali, make sure to read our guide to dispersed camping near Yosemite and our guide to dispersed camping in Big Sur as well.

Calkins Flat

Photo by Don Graham via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Map 
  • Season: Open year-round 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available 

This is a smaller campsite just up the road from Chamise Flat. Due to its tight parking areas and pull-outs, it’s not such a great choice for trailers and RVs – it’s better suited for tent campers. 

While it’s open year-round, Calkins Flat dispersed area only provides services between May and September. And by these, I mean portable toilets and trash bins. Like in the case of other places described in this guide, you won’t be able to camp close to the water – staying within 25 feet of the Kern River’s edge is not allowed. 

Those who decide to stay here can expect fewer campers due to the area’s somewhat remote location. However, Calkins Flat can get quite busy during the summer weekends – you won’t be able to secure a good camping spot if you don’t arrive there early. 

If you’re up for day hiking, check out the nearby Packsaddle Trail. It takes three hours to complete this relatively challenging but rewarding walking route. 

Chamise Flat

Sierra Nevada in California
  • Map 
  • Season: Open year-round 
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available 

One of the more spread out and quieter Kern River dispersed camping areas; Chamise Flat is an excellent choice for all those looking for a bit more solitude and seclusion. 

Unlike the camping spots at other Kern River campsites, the ones at Chamise Flat offer quite a bit of privacy. Moreover, this place is situated much further north, so it gets only moderately crowded even during the summer weekends. 

The Chamise Flat dispersed campground can be accessed year-round. However, its services – trash bins and portable toilets – are there only between May and September. There are no drinkable water sources here.

The camping spots parallel Mountain Highway 99 (they’re oriented north-south) and easily accommodate vehicles of all sizes. You should have no trouble parking here, even if you own a large recreational vehicle. 

Brush Creek

Sequoia National Forest in forest
  • Season: May – September 
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally available 

The very last campsite on my list is also the northernmost one. Situated near the Johnsondale Bridge and Sherman Pass Road, it is the last area where dispersed camping is allowed before Kern River turns away from Mountain Highway 99. 

For that matter, Brush Creek dispersed campground is never as crowded during the summer as most of the other campsites described in this guide. Here, you can expect seasonal trash cans and vault toilets. 

Kern River has some pretty large rapids close to the camping area. You’ll have to be very careful if you plan to swim here. 

Like in the case of other campsites, you’ll have to pitch your tent at least 25 feet away from the river and pack your garbage in case the trash receptacles are full. Those planning to build a campfire must obtain a free permit.  If you are also interested in free camping opportunities in the National Parks of California, read our ultimate guide to Death Valley National Park camping and our guide to Joshua Tree National Park dispersed camping.

The Takeaway 

That’s it! By now, you should have a good understanding of where, when, and how to camp alongside Kern River. 

Hopefully, this guide has helped you prepare for your Kern River dispersed camping adventure and choose an ideal location for it. Stay responsible and have a great time!