The Kern River is one of the few river systems in the Sierra Nevada that flows in a north/south orientation. Congress added the North Fork to the federal system in 1987. The designation of the North and South Forks Kern, the Kings, and the Merced by Congress that year represents the single largest expansion of the federal system in California since 1981. The South Fork begins in the Golden Trout Wilderness east of Cottonwood Pass on the Inyo National Forest and flows south into the South Sierra and Domeland Wilderness areas on the Sequoia National Forest. Most of the river flows through protected wilderness, except for short segments where the river flows through Monache and Kennedy Meadows. The Pacific Crest Trail parallels the river in the Kennedy Meadows region.
The river possesses an astounding array of scenic, recreational, fish, geological, historical, cultural, and ecological values. The river flows in its north/south orientation through an unparalleled range of relatively unaltered habitats. Due to its largely roadless watershed, the South Fork Kern exhibits a high level of biotic integrity and provides outstanding wilderness recreation.
Past grazing in the Monache and Kennedy Meadow areas has degraded recreation values, caused bank erosion, and harmed water quality. Although Forest Service grazing allotments in these areas are on hold to allow the river to recover, there is concern that resumption of grazing in this relatively dry area may result in further impacts.
Downstream of the wild and scenic segment on public lands, the South Fork flows through the nearly 3,000 acre Audubon Kern River Reserve. The rich riparian habitat along the river in the Reserve supports over 300 bird species.