Unbound nature, diverse terrain make this lake a great escape
Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle
August 1, 2002
When people hear of Convict Lake, they always wonder how it won such notoriety.
This beautiful scene could also be named "Paradise." Located on the east side of the Sierra, the lake region offers outstanding trout fishing, wilderness hiking, fine alpine views and natural hot springs. Services include cabin rentals, a fine restaurant and a Forest Service campground.
At this site, prisoners who had escaped from Carson State Prison were cornered in 1871. They won the shootout, and eluded capture for another two weeks (most were then hanged). But the lake had achieved its legend.
"Lake Diablo" became "Convict Lake." What was "Mount Diablo" became "Mount Morrison," named for Robert Morrison, a Wells Fargo agent who led the posse and was killed at the scene.
Visitors to Convict Lake today find a jewel set at 7,583 feet, just south of Mammoth Lakes. A mile long and a half-mile wide, the lake sits in a granite canyon that rises into granite peaks of the John Muir Wilderness.
Newcomers get a surprise. Highway 395 arrows through stark, high desert. Even after turning onto Convict Lake Road, a visitor may feel disappointed by the bleak landscape. That changes to awe as you top a short ridge and continue to the lake shore. It's best on calm evenings when water turns to glass and reflected sunset light dances across the high granite backdrop.
Yet, more than a place for rhapsodizing about wilderness, this is a place for action.
A 10-mph speed limit makes the lake ideal for kayaks, canoes and other car- top boats. Rentals are available. Paddle up the inlet of Convict Creek and everything seems to come to life. Big trout go on the bite, deer come down to feed near shore.
The biggest trout I've ever seen was here, a brown trout of about 20 pounds rolling on the surface. Trout fishing is best if you're trolling just off the underwater shelf, but bait-dunkers also do well along the southern shore. An annual trout derby starts Sept. 5.
The hiking is sensational. A trail runs along the lake's east side, then climbs the canyon to provide Kodak-moment views of the lake and the desert to the east. With a backpack, you can climb up into a wilderness basin. It boasts six small, flawless lakes, with great campsites. Because this route does not link to the John Muir Trail, it is often bypassed.
Hot springs can be found just east of Mammoth Airport (the best is at Hot Creek), there are day trips on horseback (by reservation), and night often offers perfect stargazing.
August is a fine time to make this trip. The lake really comes to life in September and October. Once Labor Day passes, the number of visitors falls way off, and the trout fishing is the best of the year. By late September, the aspens begin turning color, and you get an eye-popping vista.
CONVICT LAKE GETAWAY
-- Camping - Forest Service camp at Convict Creek, 88 sites (tents or RVs); drinking water, flush toilets. No reservations, $13/night, seven-day limit.
-- Convict Lake cabins -- 23 cabins, two houses, rustic to deluxe; bedding provided. $90-$695/night. (800) 992-2260.
-- Lake facilities -- Restroom, store, restaurant.
-- Fishing/boating: Small marina, small launch ramp, boat and motor rentals,
fish cleaning station.
-- Pets -- Leashed dogs permitted, $10/night at cabins.
-- Trail -- Convict Creek Canyon Trail to lakes in John Muir Wilderness, 16- mile round trip, 3,000-foot elevation gain.
-- Hot springs -- Several hot springs east of Mammoth Lakes Airport, 10- minute drive.
-- Horses --Rentals and guided trips at Convict Lake Resort.
-- Directions -- Drive toward Yosemite, take Highway 120 over Tioga Pass to Highway 395 near Lee Vining. Turn south go past Mammoth Lakes turnoff to Convict Lake Road (near Mammoth Lakes Airport). Turn right, go two miles. Store is on right, campground on left.
Or, from Sacramento Area, go to Carson City and Highway 395. Drive south to Lee Vining; continue as above.