“This epic Southern California jewel is a true trek that you won't easily forget.
— Dan Oakland
This adventure begins at 9,200 feet; so the road to the trailhead and the trail can be covered in snow during the winter months. Similarly, it ends in Kernville at 2700 feet which can be very hot in summer months. Plan accordingly, this is a long route and it can experience weather (rain) even in July or August. Bring lots of water, be prepared - there are no 'bail out' points and little to no cell reception.
The Cannell Trail is a big alpine cross-country ride that ends with a bonus: the 8-mile long -5,000 foot downhill called "The Plunge." To achieve this you begin at 9,200 feet and will likely feel the elevation before you leave the parking lot. The start of the ride is NOT the highest point of the ride, one of the hardest climbs is in the first few miles of the ride, and the first 17 miles are all above 7000 feet.
That said, this is an 'Epic' in the truest sense. Long before The Plunge you'll experience very long rugged downhill sections - sometimes smooth and flowy, sometimes quite rocky and technical. You'll pass alpine meadows, "Kernville Elk" and cool rock formations. Once at The Plunge buckle up for a fast descent with great views of Lake Isabella.
Need to Know
Either set up a shuttle or use Mountain & River Adventures in Kernville to get to Sherman Pass. There is a trail on the west side of the parking lot you could take to Sherman Peak, but most start here by heading South right away. BRING A MAP or someone who has ridden this before. Maps are for sale at M&R Adventures in Kernville or even on Amazon.com. Leave open gates open and closed gates closed after passing through.
Get to Kernville, which is approximately 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield. You may want to camp the night before (many commercial campgrounds are available) so you can shuttle up early the next day. Drive / Shuttle up to Sherman Pass. The trail begins directly south from the large paved area.
Right away the trail drops down on loose dirt and woop-de-woops. Be aware, motorcycle use is also allowed on this trail. There is some climbing in the next 2-1/4 miles before you get a little break overlooking Mosquito Meadows. After the meadow you have a mile long grinder up to a saddle. This is where you'll remember that you are above 9,000 feet. The saddle at 9,400 feet is a great place to break and knock back some snacks.
From the saddle you're going to drop down to Big Meadow. This is one of the most technical sections of the ride. Despite the big drop of The Plunge, it is not the technical part of the ride. The descents leading to it have the drops, rocks, trees, roots, and other obstacles.
You'll know once you arrive at Big Meadow. It is quite striking in contrast to the rest of the ride as it is so big and flat. This is also where you ride on your first section of fire road. You'll follow the fire road around the north and west sides of the meadow. There are single tracks that peel off, but try to stay within sight of the road. Don't find yourself going over barbed wire IN to the meadow. Once you are around the meadow on the South side, you'll intersect with a fire road that goes left to a horse staging area.
From here you can either go to the left and downhill and catch the Cannell trail when it crosses the fire road (hard to spot) and then go up a brutal section of singletrack that is a hike; or you can stay to the right and climb the fire road up. The Cannell trail intersects (crosses) the road after the brutal singletrack uphill section.
Now rejoining the Cannell Trail singletrack on the right side of the Fire Road you're going to have a .6 mile 10% 'push' of a climb. After, you'll get a fun drop down to Cannell Meadow where the trail will briefly turn to Fire Road, but look for the singletrack to continue on the left. For the next 2.5 miles you'll meander in and out of the meadow as you work your way south. Near the south end of the Meadow there is cool rock formation that really stands out.
The south end of the meadow gives way to somewhat narrow canyon that Cannell Meadow creek runs through. This canyon has some technical sections that will require some slow speed skills as you have some tight spots to weave and squeeze through. After this technical section you'll come out to Pine Flats on a fire road. Pick up the trail to your left and continue on. There is a barbed wire fenced gate shortly after the trail starts to turn slightly downhill. Make sure to put the gate back up behind you.
You are now at the beginning of The Plunge. The trail rolls smooth with a few technical patches here and there. Right away you'll not be on the pedals much as you just lay off the brakes and start screaming. Shortly after you start on the plunge you'll come around a turn and WOW! You'll have an incredibly amazing vista of Lake Isabella far below. From here it is an absolute bomb fest that just keeps going and going and going. As awesome as the trail is it is worth it to stop occasionally just to take in the views. There is one short steep rise in the trail about 1/3rd of the way down. After that, the trail gets looser and you'll have some switchbacks that can trip you up if you're not very proficient in navigating them.
The bottom of the trail comes out at a fire road. Bear left and go up to gate. Once through the gate you'll see a singletrack heading down through the meadow. Follow this and it will take you out to Mountain Road 99 where you'll find your shuttle or head left and down back to M&R Adventures.
History & Background
You can find out a lot of information about this trail online. There is a Decline Magazine May 2011 article that talks about Kernville in general and the Cannell more specifically.