Exploring the Kern River Watershed

By Amy Patten | Photos by Amy Patten, Jose Esparza, Jen Aguilar, Victoria Ramirez, and Luis Rincon

At the beginning of June, CNPS met up with our friends Latino Outdoors Fresno for an unforgettable trip to the southern Sierra Nevadas in Kern County! Located where the Sierra Nevadas, the Transverse Range, and the Mojave desert all come together, the Kern River watershed is home to a unique assemblage of plants and animals. We felt excited to share the beauty and natural history of the area with our participants and enjoyed a weekend of hiking, camping, botanizing, and birding.

On Saturday, we set off into the mountains to look for rare plants on the Cannell Meadows trail. This trail starts out at the base of the Sierra where the desert meets the mountains, and quickly climbs into chaparral interspersed with scenic gray pine, juniper, and blue oak woodland.

Our goal for the day was to find Kern Canyon clarkia (Clarkia xantiana ssp. parviflora, CRPR 4.2), a southern Sierras endemic. Drought conditions proved less than ideal for June wildflowers, but we were still treated to some blooms from paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), and red spot clarkia (Clarkia speciosa). As we climbed up the trail, someone spotted a hint of bright pink peeking out from a rocky outcrop–we found our Kern Canyon Clarkia! 

After a few more miles of hiking, we stopped to chat about CNPS conservation efforts in the area and discussed some of the amazing rare plants we found. We rested on a perfect rock face with a sweeping view of the valley below and took in the view over lunch. 

While weather in June can be variable in Kern County, we were lucky enough to have perfect weather for a big hike! After the hike, we headed to the river to cool off and enjoy spending time together in a beautiful place. Back at camp, we cooked up a burrito bar feast!

The following day, we awoke bright and early to meet the Tulare County Audubon Society, who brought binoculars to share with the group and helped us practice spotting and identifying birds in the campground. Then, we headed over to the Kern River Audubon Preserve in Weldon to check out riparian plants and continue birding under the shade of the towering cottonwoods lining the river valley. One of our favorite plants in the preserve was yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), a resident of streambeds, seeps, and wetlands. 

The understory of the cottonwoods was teeming with bird activity. House wrens, song sparrows, and red-wing blackbirds sung loudly and we got a look at some beautiful (and often hard to find) Lawrence’s goldfinches. As we walked back at the end of our hike, a brilliant red summer tanager landed right over the group! 

Group and dog looking up for birds
Looking for birds

Following our time at the preserve, we drove into the nearby Greenhorn Mountains to check out some of the burn area from the 2020 French Fire and make observations for the Fire Followers community science project. 

The burn area was blanketed with hundreds of butterfly mariposa lilies (Calochortus venustus) and twining snakelilies (Dichelostemma volubile) winding between shrubs and charred logs. Yerba santa, a prolific resprouter following wildfires, had grown back in full force; many plants exhibited extra-large growth forms. 

Meanwhile, our Vegetation team was nearby surveying plots in the valley floor near the Kern River. We joined them to look for some rare plants, and they found a historic occurrence of the alkali mariposa lily (Calochortus striatus, CRPR 1B.2)!

pinkish-purple mariposa lily
Alkali mariposa lily (Calochortus striatus, CRPR 1B.2)

We had an amazing weekend in Kern County that we’ll never forget! Thank you to our funders, the Virginia and Alfred Harrell Foundation, for making this trip possible. 

Koda the dog with a rainbow bandana
Koda enjoying the adventure

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