One Of The Most Dangerous Rivers In America Is This California 'Killer'

On a warm summer day, there's nothing more relaxing than floating down a rambling river in a canoe, kayak, or even an inner tube. The combination of the cool water and the sunshine is an ideal way to kick back, unplug, and spend some time outdoors. While most days spent on the river are pure enjoyment, water recreation isn't without its risks. Sometimes, even if a stream or river appears inviting, there are hidden dangers lurking just beneath the surface. Such is the case with the Kern River. Located near the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, the Kern River has been responsible for multiple drownings.

An ominous sign is posted near one of the river's access points which states that well over 300 people have perished on the river since the year 1968. Still, the dangers don't seem to deter people from attempting to navigate the water. The river is located within a four-hour drive from Southern California and many visitors venture from cities like Los Angeles to beat the heat in the cool water. The river is as beautiful as it is deadly. Currents are swift and can be extremely dangerous, especially when water levels are high. It's been nicknamed "The Killer Kern" and while it may look like a thrilling place to go whitewater rafting, travelers should be careful to take safety precautions when entering the river's dangerous rapids. 

Beautiful and treacherous

The Kern River is well known amongst paddlesports enthusiasts as one of the wildest and most challenging whitewater rivers in the United States with plenty of Class IV and Class V rapids, but even professional boaters aren't immune to its dangers. In 2023 a professional kayaker perished while trying to navigate the swift currents, amongst several others. The river is particularly hazardous due to the fast-moving water and extremely cold temperatures.

Unfortunately, spring and summer, when most visitors attempt to go for a swim, are the most dangerous times. The river is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and sometimes the summer melt can cause the river's current increase to over 8,000 cubic feet per second. The volume of water moving down the steep 30-feet-per-mile gradient creates some seriously mean whitewater. The cold temperatures can further complicate matters as they can cause the body to go into shock. Swimmers and boaters run the risk of hypothermia.

The river's current can cause debris to get stuck on rocks under the water's surface which creates a suction effect. If you were to tip over, you could become pinned against them underwater. Others may become caught in hydraulics. It's crucial that you always wear a certified personal flotation device, or life jacket, anytime you enter the water. Entering the water at all poses a risk, so if you want to air on the side of safety, it's better to admire the river from shore.

Experiencing Kern River

The Kern may be dangerous, but it's still beloved by adventurers and nature enthusiasts. The wild, beautiful, and deadly river has long been viewed as sacred to local Indigenous peoples. In 1987 it was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, and it flows through Sequoia National Park as well as Inyo National Forest. Sadly, it was named one of America's Most Endangered Rivers by American Rivers in 2022. For years, water has been diverted for agricultural purposes, and now the river is at risk due to water loss. Preserving the river is crucial for local flora and fauna. Several rare species call the river home, including certain salamanders that only exist in the Kern River.

The Kern River is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its breathtaking beauty, and a thrilling source of outdoor recreation. Even though it's dangerous, it's well worth visiting as long as you take the proper safety precautions and exercise good judgment. Unless you're an experienced whitewater boater, or embark on a guided expedition, you should probably stay out of the water, but you can still hike, fish, and enjoy the river on a camping adventure. If you do decide to paddle the Killer Kern, California State Parks implores that you know your limitations and your vessel. Only those with proper training should attempt to navigate the river without a guide. Proper safety equipment including personal flotation devices, helmets, and wetsuits for cold water are non-negotiable.