For an end-of-summer family fling, head north to Bakersfield and a refreshing raft ride on the Kern River.
As the Southland's one and only white-water river, the Kern carries runoff from melting snow in the Sierra down to the San Joaquin Valley. At its lower end the river offers first-time rafters thrills but no threats.
From spring until fall, as long as the water is high enough, Kern River Tours puts its rubber rafts into the scenic river near Rio Bravo. The season continues at least through September, with daily trips at 10 a.m., 12:30 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
This time of year the lower Kern is rated a Class I and II ride, meaning easy to medium difficulty. You'll splash up and down over a few rapids, enough to get everyone wet and excited, but most of the ride is tame and even rafters as young as 8 years are invited along.
In fact, kids soon discover plastic buckets in the boat are not for bailing but scooping up the cool river water and drenching fellow rafters. It may be the most entertaining way to beat the heat of Bakersfield.
Every rafter wears a life jacket, and on certain sections of the five-to-seven-mile excursion you're even welcome to jump out of the boat and float along with the current.
Each raft carries up to eight passengers, plus the boatman who steers the inflatable craft. Adults are given paddles and instructions for providing power when needed. A minimum of four persons is required to embark on the river journey.
The river and raft meander through a secluded section of Rio Bravo Ranch, 10,000 acres where cattle roam and citrus and other crops are grown.
The land is being developed as a master-planned community and already boasts a full-fledged tennis and golf resort. It also features an equestrian center, and has an airport for guests who arrive by private or chartered plane.
The lodge at Rio Bravo Resort has 112 rooms, some with fireplaces and wet bars. A special rafting package includes a river trip and one night's lodging with breakfast for $99 per couple.
Otherwise, you can sign up for a rafting trip for $20 per person, including transportation from the resort to the launch site. Wear a swimsuit or shorts and a T-shirt and tennis shoes; everything will get wet.
How to Get There
If you're not a guest at the resort, drive directly to Canyon Vista Center just at the head of Kern Canyon on California 176.
Get there from Los Angeles by heading north on Interstate 5 through Tejon Pass. As you descend the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley, take the Lamont/Lake Isabella exit and continue north on California 184 to join California 178 east. Drive about three miles beyond that junction to the Kern River Tours rafting headquarters at Canyon Vista Center.
Call for reservations, (805) 872-6140. From the center, you'll be driven to the put-in point, given life vests and safety instructions, and then set off in a swirl of water down the Kern River.
You'll drift down the peaceful tree-lined river, encountering only a few grazing cattle and fishermen along the way. Within two hours you're back at the rafting center, possibly enthusiastic enough to inquire about the longer and wilder white-water trips that operate upriver.
For guests at Rio Bravo Resort there are other activities at hand, including an 18-hole championship golf course. Greens fees are $20 weekends and holidays, $15 weekdays. Cart rental costs $12. Lessons can be arranged with the club pro.
You also have a choice of 19 tennis courts, with 15 lighted. Use of the courts is free for resort guests, but make reservations for playing time. Private and group tennis lessons are available.
Another outdoor option at Rio Bravo is a scenic trail ride through the ranch from the resort's equestrian center. A wrangler leads up to nine riders on two-hour horseback walks; ages 8 and over are welcome. Cost is $17 per person. A special ride takes to the trail early Sunday mornings and ends at the resort for brunch.
The Rio Bravo dining room is open to guests and also the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
Room rates at the resort are $68-$70 double, with suites from $138. Ask about the two-night golf and tennis packages. For reservations, call (805) 872-5000 or toll-free (800) 282-5000.
To reach Rio Bravo Resort from California 178, turn left on Alfred Harrell Highway, then right on Lake Ming Road.
That road also leads to Kern River County Park and Lake Ming, popular for motorboating and water skiing. Adjacent is a campground with 50 sites at the river's edge. Sites cost $10 per vehicle; no hookups or reservations.
On the other side of Lake Ming you can play at the public Foss-Kern River Golf Course for $7 weekends, $6 weekdays.
A nearby frontage road leads to CALM, the California Living Museum that has outdoor displays of the state's plant and animal wildlife.
Return to Los Angeles the way you came.
Round trip from Los Angeles to enjoy rafting and a resort by the Kern River near Bakersfield is 220 miles.