Convict Lake Backcountry – John Muir Wilderness

I have a confession to make.  I don’t usually like to do the same trail twice because there is just so much more trails out there to see.  But, this year I have returned a few times to the same trails, Convict Lake Backcountry being one.

Convict Lake is a beautiful alpine lake just south of Mammoth Lakes, CA a premier ski resort in the Eastern Sierras.  Convict Lake offers swimming, fishing, boating, weddings, etc.  The landscape is something different and if you can make your way out, you will love it!

*Originally hiked: September 2018 & July 2014


Convict Lake 001
Convict Lake
Location Mileage Elevation Gain Type
John Muir Wilderness
23.2 miles
2,600 feet
Out-and-back, loop

What’s in this Guide

  1. Background – Fun facts, trailhead info, things to know, map of hike.
  2. Directions – how to get to the trailhead.
  3. Weather – The weather isn’t always predictive, always check it before you head out for your hike.
  4. Backcountry Permits*Permit is required to hike in this area overnight.
  5. Itinerary Ideas – Some ideas following 1-3 day options for you to choose from.
  6. Maps, Books and Gear Recommendations – A source for important maps that you should take on the hike, some reading material before the hike and some recommendations on gear items that would be great for the hike.
  7. My Babblings – Just in case you want to just hear my story and see some pictures that I like to share with you guys. Be sure to check out my rambling and photographs in this section.
  8. Check Them Out – More fun reads by other authors that you can check out


Background

Convict Lake sits at 7,621 feet; furthermore it’s name originated from an incident that occurred back in 1871. A party of convicts escaped from the Carson City prison and went into this area right behind the lake. Above the lake there is a mountain named after Deputy Sheriff Robert Morrison, Mount Morrison, who was killed in an encounter when he led a group to find the escaped convicts.

Convict Lake Resort

One of the nice things about this lake other than easy to get to is that it has a resort that includes lodging, a marina, dining and a small shop. Not only does it offer that, but the chance to have a wedding with the beautiful backdrop of the lake and the towering mountains around it. To read a little more about it’s history take a look at the Convict Lake Resort About page.

More Links & Information

Lodging
Boat Rentals
Activities
Restaurant at Convict Lake, Morrison’s Restaurant


Map of Hike in 2018


Directions

To get to the Convict Lake Backcountry from Bishop:
Take 395 N for 32 miles. Turn left onto Convict Lake Rd. Drive about 1.6 miles and you will see a hiker parking area, turn right. Drive till it dead ends into a parking lot. You missed the trail if you ended up to the lake; turn around and make a left onto the road that shows hikers parking area. The trailhead is on the west side of the lot.


Weather

Check that weather before you go, even if it’s a summer trip.  Even if it’s summer, the weather changes in the mountains.  In our case we have very nice warm days, but at night it got down into the mid-30s with some frost on our tent; not to mention the wind.
Convict Lake – 8,804 feet
Mount Morrison – 12,241 feet: Mount Morrison is one of the higher peaks in the area, good to check the highest especially if you’re going to climb one of the peaks in the area.


Backcountry Permits

If you are day hiking permits are not needed, but if you decide to do an overnight trip backcountry permits are required.

How to get a backcountry permit?

Go to the Recreation.gov website.

*Note: Please make sure you get a permit, you will get fined if you don’t have one and it is always good for the forestry service to know where you are especially if you are out for a long time. 


Itinerary Ideas

One/Two Day

I would definitely recommend more than one day in this area, but if you only have one day there are a couple lakes that you can make it to.  You could do any of these in two nights by sleeping at the lake of your choice.

  • Hike ~4.25 miles one-way; 2,200′ elevation gain – Convict Lake to Mildred Lake
  • Hike ~5 miles one-way; 2,700′ elevation gain – Convict Lake to Dorothy Lake, pass Mildred Lake along the way
  • Hike ~4.8 miles one-way, .6 miles off trail; 3,000′ elevation gain – Convict Lake to Bright Dot Lake, pass Mildred Lake along the way (strenuous)
  • Hike ~6 miles one-way;  2,700′ elevation gain on the way up, 400′ on the way out – Convict Lake to Genevieve Lake (strenuous)
Three/Four Day

Taking 3 or 4 days is definitely what I recommend for the Convict Lake Backcountry.  You can shorten as needed, but here is a sample 4 day itinerary that we did.

  •  Day 1: Convict Lake to Mildred Lake
  •  Day 2: Mildred Lake to Lake Wit-So-Na-Pah
  •  Day 3: Lake Wit-So-Na-Pah
  •  Day 4: Head back to reality

Maps, Books and Gear Recommendation

  1. Mammoth High Country Topo Map – Tom Harrison maps are awesome.  I definitely recommend buying this either in advance or at the visitor center when you are picking up your permits.
  2. Sierra South: Backcountry Trips in California’s Sierra Nevada – Great resource for many hikes in the Easter Sierras.
  3. LifeStraw Mission Water Purification System – Ever since we got this one I keep recommending it; while we set up camp the water filters.
  4. Goal Zero Nomad 5 Solar Panel – Gear up with one of these for your electronics especially if you use your iPhone or GoPro for photographs.
  5. Darn Tough Micro Crew Light Cushion Sock – Great socks for the trail, I usually take two pairs on my hike.  I can change out of the ones I wore during the day.
  6. GoPro Hero – I recommend one of these on every trip you go on.

Take a look at my “What’s in My Backpack?” page for more ideas on what to take on your backpacking or hiking trips.  I think I have a little updating to do on this one.


My Babblerings 

How we ended up picking Convict Lake

I always can’t wait to get to this part of the write-up because I get to daydream about the whole trip.  We decided late that year in 2018 to do a Labor Day hike as we were supposed to do the John Muir Trail, but ended up cancelling it due to the fires.  If you want to read a little on “Why We Opted Out of the JMT“, I’ve written a few excuses up to read through.  But guess what we actually finished the trail last summer June of 2021 (more to come on that).  Either way, the cancelling of that trip meant we would have some time to do a Labor Day trip.

As most hikers/backpackers know, getting permits are difficult for weekends like this and we kept checking every day. I was able to grab a couple permits for Friday departure on the Convict Lake Trail, but we still needed one.

permit pick up time

We arrived at the permit place (Eastern Sierra Agency Center) exactly at 8:00am on Friday morning.  Our friend was coming from up north, so he as well stopped at the permit place up in Mono County.  I was lucky enough to pull #11 out of a hat, which meant I would be helped 11th in line.  It doesn’t really matter what time you get there; at around opening time they come out and count everyone put those numbers in a hat and one by one you pick them.

Be patient as you may not get onto the trailhead until a later time if you are starting that day.  They called me up and I was able to secure one more permit.  3 permits to the lovely Convict Lake Backcountry.  I had been here 4 years before, but I was ecstatic to see more and explore more of the area.

starting out at convict lake trailhead

We arrived at the trail around 10:00am with only about 8 cars parked there.  This honestly isn’t the best time to start a hike because mid-day it gets the hottest, but it is what it is.  Our goal was just to get up to Mildred Lake that day and find a good spot to base camp from.  Usually on these hikes we pack up everything and go camp somewhere else, but this year we decided to stay in one spot and do day hikes from there.

It’s about 0.3 miles downhill until you reach the lake from the hiker’s parking lot.  Mt. Morrison’s view above Convict Lake always ceases to catch my attention.  Mt. Morrison rises 12,276 feet above the lake, towering with it’s metasedimentary rock.  About another 0.9 miles to get to the other side of the lake where the road forks to either go up to Mildred Lake or turn left to go around Convict Lake.  I still have yet to do the 3.0 mile loop around the lake- perfect for a quick family hiking trip.

We continued up the trail alongside Convict Creek; the weather was absolutely perfect.  About 2.7 miles into the trip there is a creek crossing you can maneuver jumping rocks or hike up a bit to an easier area to go over the creek.  I remember 4 years ago we did this creek crossing in the dark and with much more water we had to just take our shoes off and wipe off after.  In this case a lightweight easy drying towel is indeed the best option: Sea to Summit DryLite Towel.

Finding a campsite at mildred lake

The way up was pretty tough, it’s over a 2,000 foot climb from Convict Lake to Mildred Lake.  After crossing the creek the terrain is much more difficult on loose tallus and rock; take caution while hiking this portion of the trail.  After a good 3 or 4 hours we finally reached the sandy area just under Mildred Lake.  Just a quick scramble of 50 feet and Mildred was right there in front of us.  You can go around it’s south side or it’s north side.

We opted to take the north side and cross the creek/waterfall over a bridge to continue alongside the lake.  We passed by a group that we saw on the way up a few times; they were going up to Lake Dorothy, which meant we would have Mildred potentially to ourselves.

We ended up finding a spot in the meadow on the west side of the lake.  The sun was inching away and our campsite was about to be in the shade, so we quickly filled the Lifestraw Gravity Filter and set up our Big Agnes UL tent for the first time.

Dorothy, Bighorn, Wit-so-Nah-Pah, Constance adventure loop of lakes

Day 2 was going to be a longer loop of the area, I have been to Dorothy, Bighorn and all the way up to Constance, but the goal today was to potentially take back a route that we made for ourselves.  We headed up to Dorothy, the path is quite steep from Mildred up to Dorothy.  It is only about 1 mile till you view the beautiful Dorothy Lake.  We walked all the way around to it’s south side to fish for an hour and relax.

We found an area with boulders where we could jump from, fish and lay.  The water was freezing, but was the most amazing crisp feeling after jumping in.  I’m not sure if the time of day was right, but we were catching fish pretty easy.  We released all of them as we still had a long hike back ahead of us.  We decided just before 11am to head up to the lakes above Dorothy.  Bighorn was the first lake in our path and we opted to take a route less travelled which proved to be quite difficult.

We continued onto the next lake Wit-so-Nah-Pah.  I thought this an interesting name and looked it up on the book called “The Story of Inyo” states that it is a Piute influenced name meaning “to spring up to save life”.  I went ahead and bought the book “The Story of Inyo” on Amazon.

Cross Country back to camp

After checking out Constance Lake the last of the lakes, we opted to take a more difficult route back to camp.  There seemed to be a tiny trail that we took by Convict Creek, the trail then disappeared after about a mile or so and we were cross country bound.  After a quite difficult downhill, we reached the valley floor following Convict Creek back to camp.  There were points where we had to jump the creek and one time I didn’t make it to the other side.  I decided to just walk through the creek, not thinking that my boots would not be dry the next morning.

Dorothy Lake one last time

The last day we went up to Dorothy, but not till afternoon because we had to wait for my shoes to dry up.  We fished Dorothy, but because of the wind our trip was short lived and we headed back down to Mildred.  We jumped in the water, fished and cooked the fish for dinner.  Next day we headed back out to the cars.  Till next time Dorothy!


I hope you guys enjoyed my blabbering’s, tune back for the next few days as I finally gather my thoughts and such for this trip.

Happy Adventures!

Annette

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