California's wild and woolly Gold Rush era hasn't been forgotten in Kernville. This is the 31st year for its hometown hoedown known as Whiskey Flat Days.
As many as 50,000 visitors are expected to quadruple Kernville's population and join in the fun and games that include frog races and a greased pig-catching contest. The four-day party is set for Washington's birthday weekend, Feb. 13-16.
On Saturday a grand parade with 200 entries will celebrate this year's theme, Those Good Old Golden Days. Also on tap are a professional rodeo, melodramas and even an art show.
At other times this winter you'll find Kernville uncrowded and a quiet escape for outdoor enthusiasts. The pleasant town is at the top end of Isabella Lake, a year-round favorite of fishermen.
It's also convenient to family downhill ski runs at Shirley Meadows in the Greenhorn Mountains. And you can join high-country cross-country skiing over remote terrain that's accessible by Sno-Cat. Kernville offers hiking, camping and golfing, too.
Get there from Los Angeles by driving north on Interstate 5 and California 99 to Bakersfield. Exit on California 178 east through town and continue along the twisting Kern River into Sequoia National Forest to the town of Lake Isabella.
Exit north on California 155 (and then Burlando Road) that skirts the west side of Isabella Lake to Kernville, but detour along the way to the Army Corps of Engineers park headquarters and visitors center.
That's where you'll find a relief map of the lake that lights up to indicate various recreation areas: three marinas and five public boat ramps, a wildlife preserve, entrances to nature trails and campgrounds with 760 sites. (Camping is free until April; first come, first served.)
Also get a free guide map at this hilltop office, open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Phone: (619) 379-2742. From the parking lots you're presented with a panorama of the vast lake and an overhead view of the earth-fill dam that created it in 1953.
Until that time snow melted from the nearby Sierra Nevada and winter rains often turned the Kern River into a uncontrolled torrent that flooded valuable agriculture and oil fields downstream. The man-made reservoir had its own victim, the original town of Kernville, which was moved to a new site at the north end of the lake.
Soon after gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains in 1853, the town began as a mining camp called Whiskey Flats. Its name was attributed to the main attraction, a makeshift saloon: two whiskey barrels with a plank across their tops. The town was renamed Kernville in 1864.
You'll learn much more about the area's past by visiting the Kern Valley Museum just across the river in the community building on Kernville Road at the corner of Sierra Way. Artifacts of the early Tubatulabal Indians are on display, along with memorabilia of the river valley's gold miners, ranchers and lumbermen.
Museum hours are 1 to 4 p.m. weekends; admission is free but donations are welcome. In the same complex is the Kernville Chamber of Commerce with visitor information, including a list of lodgings and restaurants. Phone (619) 376-2629.
The relocated Kernville dates to 1952 and is centered along Kernville Road on a little town square surrounded by Western-style false-front stores. Across the road Riverside Park borders the Kern and attracts picnickers and trout fishermen. Kayakers occasionally practice there in the white water.
Just south along the river, golfers play year-round on the nine-hole, 36-par Kern Valley Golf Course. Hours are 7 a.m. to sunset every day. You can rent clubs and carts at the clubhouse, and get refreshments, too. Phone (619) 376-2828.
Kernville also is the starting point for cross-country ski tours in the southern Sierra. Up to 10 skiers are transported by van to the snow line in Sequoia National Forest and then transferred to a Sno-Cat track vehicle to reach pristine Big Meadow at 8,000 feet in the pines.
Head off with a guide on Nordic trails or cut your own tracks in the unused snow. Lunch is served in the meadow, with other meals and overnight accommodations provided at the remote Hafenfeld Ranch lodge that's reached by Sno-Cat.
Two-day midweek outings are $200 per person, weekends $235, including ski gear, all meals and lodging. Three-day trips cost $290 weekdays, $330 weekends. A one-day cross-country tour is $60 with skis and lunch. Contact Sierra Sno-Cat Tours, a division of Kern River Tours, (619) 379-4616.
In Kernville you can rent cross-country skis, poles and boots for $10 a day at Sequoia Outdoor Center, 11316 Kernville Road. Then head to the 6,100-foot Greenhorn Summit where eight miles of ungroomed Nordic trails have been marked by the forest service.