Convict Lake may be one of the most picturesque places I have ever visited. It is located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, just outside of Mammoth. The lake was created naturally thousands of years ago by glacier movement. It is very easy to get to. Convict Lake is found a mere two miles off of Hwy 395, snuggled in a box canyon, and is a must see. It is known for trout fishing, camping and hiking. There are several trails in the area though I am going to discuss the three mile loop circling the lake. The hike has very little elevation gain and is more like a gentle saunter rather than an aggressive hike. For those of you like me who live at sea level, the challenge is in the elevation of the lake itself. Convict Lake lies at high elevation at 7,850 ft and you may feel a bit short of breath. So take it slow and enjoy yourself as you walk around the lake. Make sure you bring your camera along. It is one heavenly place surrounded by pine, white aspen and birch trees. You are going to be treated to incomparable beauty that you will want to share with your friends.
The Northern Paiute tribe lived in the area surrounding Convict Lake thousands of years before Europeans came to the region. The lake seems have have been called by two names by the Paiute. The first was Wit-sa-nap, which means “lake in a dent in the ground“. The Paiute believed that Lake Wit-sa-nap was created by the Great Spirit to protect magical fish who were infused with the spirits of children. The legend goes that …the streams which flowed from the mountains were filled with Pot-sa-wa-gees, water babies, who lived in spirit and were not visible to the eye, having the face of a Paiute child and the body of a fish. In the village, there lived a wise man, Hi-na-nu, who was a tribe leader and was looked to by his people for guidance in many matters. He was well respected. However, one day Hi-na-nu plotted to capture the Pot-sa-wa-gees as they traveled upstream. He chased them upstream to a point where the water became very shallow and they were in danger of being captured. The Pot-sa-wa-gees prayed to the Great Spirit for help. The Great Spirit answered and caused the waters to flow uphill and join the waters flowing down from the mountains. The waters united and formed one large, deep lake wherein the little spirits found safety. This story was related in Wit-sa-nap: the Convict Lake of Today, Sierra Club Bulletin Vol. IX, San Francisco, CA, 1915, Mrs. A.A. Forbes.
The Lake is also said to have been called Tuvaimawiye’e or “the lake that follows the enemy” by the Paiute. It is said that Hai’nanu, a young Paiute boy, disrespected the lake and challenged its power. The Lake then chased Hai’nanu up into the surrounding mountains. Hai’nanu was only able to escape to safety by jumping through a hole in the sky. In 2014, rock climbers Kristoffer Wikstrom and Preston Rea, set a new route on the east face of Laurel Mountain (Laurel Mountain surrounds Convict Lake) and named it Hai’nanu to honor the legend of the Paiute.
In 1852, United States Army Lieutenant Treadwell Moore and members of his detachment were the first European Americans to discover the Mono basin. Convict Lake is located near the Mono Basin. It was an accidental discovery. Lt. Moore and his company were in pursuit of Chief Teneiya of the Yosemite Miwok tribe. It was believed that a group of Miwok warriors attacked and killed three prospectors at the Merced River. The pursuit of Chief Teneiya led them to Mono Pass and their first glimpse of Mono Lake. Lt. Moore failed to capture Chief Teneiya but he found something else of great interest. Moore found some very promising ore samples in the area. The news of possible gold or silver in the region spread quickly. By the fall of 1852 miners descended on the area to investigate its mining prospects. Miners that came to Mono County renamed Wit-sa-nap to Monte Diablo Creek. There are very few references to this and I am not sure why anyone would call this area “Devil’s Mountain”. As I have said, its a heavenly place.
The lake was not to be called Monte Diablo Lake for long. The name changed after a notorious shoot-out that occurred at Monte Diablo Lake in 1871.
The story begins in 1870. On November 5 of that year a group of men robbed the Central Pacific Railroad’s Overland Express of $41,000 in gold coin weighing about 150 lbs. Unbeknownst to the robbers, they left behind $8,000 in silver and $15,000 in hidden gold bars. I imagine they may have been disappointed to find this out but they did get away with a pretty good haul. $41,000 was a huge amount of money in 1870. The train robbery happened near Reno, Nevada. The thieves were quickly captured and imprisoned at Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City. This was the first train robbery to ever occur in the West and the very first to happen to the new Transcontinental Railroad.
A year later, these train robbers (Tilton Cockerell, John Chapman, E.B. Parsons and John Squires) instigated the largest prison break in the history of the United States. This was a well planned escape by the prisoners. The escape happened on a Sunday evening when only one guard, Volney Rollins, was inside the prison cell area to escort the inmates to their cells for evening lock up. As per their plan, the inmates quickly overtook Rollins using improvised weapons and locked him in a cell. They then stole guns and ammunition from a storeroom and made their way past the remaining guards and the two wardens who had joined in the fight to unsuccessfully stop the escape. One of the guards, F.M. Isaacs would die from three bullet wounds a month after the escape. The first fatality of the escape happened with Matt Pixely, owner of the Warm Springs Hotel near the prison, was shot down as he rushed towards the prisoners firing his revolver.
The prisoners quickly split up to avoid capture. Six of them head off towards Mono and Inyo Counties where our story will lead now to Monte Diablo Lake. This group was led by Charlie Jones a convicted murderer. He was familiar with the area and believed that it would be the perfect place to hide from the law. The six men included Jones, John Burke, Tilton Cockerell, J. Bedford Roberts, Moses Black and Leander Morton. Cockerell was the only man in this group who had participated in the train robbery. As the men headed south they stole four horses and more provisions. When nearing Sulfur Springs, the group encountered eighteen-year-old Billy Poor. Billy was a Pony Express rider out on his first day of the job when he ran into the convicts. The criminals wanted his horse. Once they had the horse, instead of letting Billy go, Charlie Jones shot him in the head, killing him. It is believed that Billy was killed so that he could not spread the news that the escaped convicts were in the area.
The cold-blooded murder of young Billy incensed the citizens of Mono County. In response, a posse was quickly formed and set out after the escaped convicts. On September 17, 1871, the posse eventually caught up with the men camped out near Monte Diablo Lake and waited until sunrise to confront them. Only three remained; Jones, Burke and Cockerell rode away before the shoot-out occurred. The three that were involved in the shoot-out at Convict Lake were Black, Morton and Roberts. As the sun rose, a firefight ensued. Thirty four year-old Robert Morrison, a Wells Fargo agent, was shot point-blank by Black and died. It was reported that Morrison had Moses Black in his sights when his gun failed. Black, a very large man with dark hair and beard, walked up to Morrison and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. One of the local Paiute, Mono Jim, was also shot and killed.
A second posse was quickly formed and went after the three men who had escaped Diablo Lake and were headed south towards Bishop. The law finally captured them on September 27, 1871. That day they were loaded into a wagon to go north to Carson City for trial. The three prisoners were accompanied by several guards. These guards quickly gave the men up without a fight when a large group of local armed vigilantes surrounded the wagon. The vigilantes wanted their own revenge for the death of Billy Poor, Robert Morrison and Mono Jim. They dragged the three men off of the wagon to a vacant cabin. There the vigilantes set up court, and without any legal authority, tried the three convicts. After two hours of interrogation and deliberation the vigilantes voted to hang Black and Morton. A scaffold was quickly built and the two men were hanged. The vigilantes turned Roberts back over to the posse. He was believed to have had only a minor role in the murders.
By mid-November, eighteen of the twenty nine escaped convicts had been recaptured or hung. Eleven were never accounted for. Charlie Jones, who murdered Billy Poor and sparked the shoot-out at Monte Diablo Lake, was never caught. It was after this infamous shoot-out that Monte Diablo Lake was renamed Convict Lake. Two of the mountains nestled around Convict Lake were renamed Mono Jim Peak and Morrison Peak in honor of the men who lost their lives there.
So there you have it. Convict Lake is part of the history and lore of the wild-west. Her story includes the first train robbery in the West, the largest prison escape in the United States and the Pony Express!
Fun Stuff: Convict Lake in Film
Be sure to check out the four hyperlinks
-The lake can be seen the the 1963 original trailer of How the West Was Won.
-Convict Lake has been featured in many commercials and movies. It can be seen in the 1998 movie Star Trek Insurrection. View this Link.
-Even better is this Nature Valley Commercial.
-The Secret of Convict Lake (1951) is a film noir western which is very, very loosely based on the story of the 1871 shoot-out. I think one of the few things that is correct is the $40,000 that was stolen from the train. That being said, it did get fairly good reviews.
The Hike Stats
Type of Route: Loop
Distance: 3.0 miles
Elevation: 7,583 ft
Elevation Gain: 213 ft
Time: 1-2 hours
Dogs Permitted: Very dog Friendly
As soon as you turn off of Hwy 395 onto Convict Lake Road you will be captivated by its beauty. We went to Convict Lake 7/1/2018, and unless specified otherwise, all of the following pictures were taken that day.
You will travel past the Convict Lake Resort (which you will see on the right) and continue on until you come to resort Marina and parking lot. There is usually parking, but like all trails, the earlier you arrive the better chance you have of finding parking near the trail head. There is a bathroom located near the parking area.
You can take the trail to the left or the right. I’ve always gone left. I think this is because you get your very first unobstructed view of the lake by going left. The marina and ramp block the view to the right. A wheelchair accessible walkway and viewing platform has been built in the last two years and provides a great place to take your first pictures. The initial part of the hike is a paved trail. Depending on the season, you will be treated to flowers along this part of the hike.
We saw people fishing all along the shoreline on the left side of the lake. Convict Lake is relatively small and covers only 170 acres. It is deep, nearly 140 feet in some places. The water is very clear and you can see the fish in the water as you hike. Convict Lake is an angler’s destination. The depth of the lake keeps it cold (I’ve been in it…it’s cold!) which is a perfect environment for trout to live in. The lake is home to rainbow and brown trout. Fishing season runs from April to November. The Convict Lake Resort hosts two fishing derbies annually, “Round Up at the Lake” in April, and “Ambush at the Lake” in the fall. The lake is stocked weekly with rainbow trout from local hatcheries because of the high demand of fishing. Legend has it that the lake is home to a giant brown trout named Horgon. Horgon has allegedly been viewed by many but despite all efforts, has not been landed.
The trail now takes you to a parking area with the last restroom before you hit the dirt trail.
The trail head is to the left of the trail sign. It is sometimes blocked by a parked car and may be difficult to find at first.
You now start on the single track trail which is GORGEOUS!! At first the trail is exposed to the sun but very quickly you will have quite a bit of tree coverage.
My friend wore her backpack as part of training for our upcoming Mt. Whitney hike which was a great idea. You may not need a pack on this trail because it is fairly flat and short. You do need water though, at least a liter, maybe more if its hot. Remember a hat and sunscreen. There will be lots of sun exposure on the other side of the lake.
I also recommend that you go down to the lake while you hike the trail. Take your shoes off and wade in the refreshingly cold water. Every time we went to the water we saw lots of big fish in the crystal clear water. We are now headed to my very favorite section of the hike. It’s a small forested area flooded with water from the snow melt of the surrounding mountains.
The log crossings are fun. They can be made safer with the use of hiking poles if log crossings worry you. There is a wooden walkway built to keep you above the water. Some areas have been washed out. Mother nature always get her way.
When you come out of the wooded walkway you find yourself in an area that feels like a small open meadow with easy access to the lake.
When you are moving past this area you run into this trail sign on the left.
The Convict Lake back country is part of the John Muir Wilderness.
The back country consists of eight lakes that drain into Convict Creek and on to Convict Lake. You can reach them using the Convict Lake Loop Trail and then turning left following the signs. Mildred Lake is 4.25 miles from the trail head sitting at 9,760 ft with a 2306 ft elevation gain. Dorothy Lake (named after Dorothy Forsyth, daughter of Major William W. Forsyth, acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park 1902-1912) is about 5 miles from the trail head and is at 10,250 ft elevation. The hikes are listed as moderate-hard. Both are on my bucket list.
Back to the hike. You are now at the midpoint of the hike. As you move back towards the marina you will lose tree cover. This side of the trail is a bit dryer but still lovely.
A small crowd gathered as a deer was sighted.
Looking back from where we came…
And then back to where we began, the marina.
This hike is my all-time favorite. You are assaulted by its beauty for the entire three-mile hike. It just makes you feel good. The lake always looks a bit different depending on the season, the weather and the time of day that you visit. It’s always pleasing. My very first visit to Convict Lake was on September, 2013. It was late afternoon and the lake appeared aqua blue. And was COLD. On cloudy days the lake acts as a mirror and you will be treated with reflections of the clouds as well as the surrounding mountains.
I hope that you have the opportunity to visit this beautiful lake. For now, I am off to Mammoth in search of another trail.