South Fork Kern RiverFay Creek Ranch

Preserving freshwater springs and wild fish habitat between the Sierras and the Mojave Desert
South Fork Kern River
South Fork Kern River
Photography | Rhonda Martin
California golden trout
California golden trout
Photography | Michael Carl

The Wild and Scenic Kern Rivers

With pristine glacial headwaters, wild and scenic river status, renowned whitewater, diverse plant life, native cold-water fishes and a Merle Haggard country song written in its honor, California’s Kern River is a Golden State treasure through and through.

The Kern’s two forks originate in the pristine high country of the Sierra Nevada: the North Fork collecting its waters from the glaciated heights of Mount Whitney, and the South Fork flowing from the Boreal Plateau. They both course through the Golden Trout Wilderness, home of California’s state fish, and through dramatic boulder-strewn granite canyons that keep the Kern running fast and furiously.

Before the forks of the Kern meet at Isabella Lake (a reservoir), they are designated wild and scenic along their entire lengths. They are wild enough that stretches of both rivers are nearly impossible to get to, and scenic enough that they make the bucket lists for hikers and boaters from all over California. In terms of the sheer diversity of life that the Kern system supports, in an area only several hours’ drive from the most populated part of the state, the Kern is invaluable.

Protecting water, habitat and hiking access to the Kern Plateau

In summer 2021, Western Rivers Conservancy launched an effort to protect the 2,275-acre Fay Creek Ranch, located almost directly between the North and South forks of the Kern, at the heart of a transition zone between the High Sierras and the Mojave Desert. In this mostly arid landscape, the ranch is prized for its abundant water, including several fresh-water springs, a hot spring and Fay Creek itself, which feed the South Fork Kern.

In September 2023, WRC purchased and then immediately transferred the western half of the ranch to the Kern River Valley Heritage Foundation, a local land trust, and the eastern half to the Tübatulabal Tribe of Kern Valley. The Tübatulabal have inhabited the lower areas of the southern Sierra Nevada, including the South Fork Kern and North Fork Kern river valleys, since time immemorial. Our joint efforts permanently protect the ranch’s water and habitat, while securing public access to two trailheads on the property. The trails were historically used by the Tübatulabal and ascend from the valley floor up to the spectacular Kern Plateau.

Conserving the ranch is a tremendous benefit for the area’s wildlife, including California condor, yellow-billed cuckoo, southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo and foothill yellow-legged frog, all of which are endangered or threatened. Fay Creek Ranch’s future will now be one that prioritizes fish and wildlife, and the people of California and beyond, who will always be able to access this beautiful area at the southern foot of the Sierra Nevada.

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