Walker Pass (SR 178)
A DEADLY RIVER, UNDERWATER TOWN & DESERT ODDITIES
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 5,246 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Kernville
WHAT TO DO NEAR WALKER PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Put some Merle Haggard on. He’s a Kern County native and has a song about the Kern River.
Switch your botany sightseeing from Sequoias to Joshua Trees.
A Deadly River, Underwater Town & Desert Oddities
The route through Walker Pass was used by Indians before it was first mapped by explorer Joseph Walker in 1834 when he set out from the San Joaquin Valley and into the Sierra foothills via Kern River Canyon. He would use the same course through the mountains on later expeditions, including one with John C. Fremont in 1845 during which Fremont named the pass for Walker.
Another member of that particular expedition party was Edward M. Kern, a topographer who mapped the river that now bears his name. (The California Historical Landmark plaque for the pass notes Kern’s legacy.)
Rio Mortal: The Mighty Kern
Highway 178, which begins in Bakersfield, follows Walker’s path and closely hugs the dangerous Kern River. Its treacherous currents prove deadly for swimmers every year, and roadside signs keep macabre count of the number of lives lost since 1968. The current tally is 269. The river canyon route also makes it a bit more dicey than the Sierra’s other major southern pass, the Tehachapi. Taking the Walker over the mountains means driving alongside a twisty river route with steep canyon walls.
An Underwater Town: Old Kernville
The road stays close to the Kern right up until it reaches a reservoir. Lake Isabella is a mecca for fishing, kayaking, paddle-boarding and other water-focused recreation. It also holds a secret below its surface: Old Kernville. The old mining town’s been in a watery grave since 1953 when the area was flooded for the reservoir.
Originally called Whiskey Flat, Old Kernville sprang up in 1860 near Big Blue Gold Mine, which started operation after a man called Lovely Rogers found gold while hurling rocks at a misbehaving mule. The townspeople decided on a name change in 1864, instead honoring Edward Kern in an attempt to shed any wild connotation Whiskey Flat might suggest.
Modern Kernville now sits on the higher ground where Old Kernville residents relocated to accommodate the reservoir, but in drought years when the water recedes, parts of Old Kernville do show themselves.
Up & Then Down to the Desert
After Lake Isabella, the road then continues its ascent to Walker Pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects the summit. From there, Highway 178 begins its descent toward the desert, passing the ghost town of Freeman Junction and soon crossing Highway 395. It then heads east toward the Trona Pinnacles — where tufa spires like those at Mono Lake near Lee Vining are the main attraction — and Death Valley. There’s a brief gap in the highway there before it picks up again further inside the park and continues on.
Mojave Scenery: Joshua Trees in the Sierra???
After the Walker Pass drops down to the East Side, keep an eye out for Joshua Trees. This particular variation of the yucca tree is considered an indicator for the Mojave Desert because that’s largely where they’re found, but a few of the gnarled Joshuas with their spiky leaves can also be spied nearer the Walker Pass.
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