Stalking Locals: Hiking above Convict Lake

Every town has its best kept secrets–a hike off the beaten path to an amazing lake with awesome fishing, or a prime local spot with great deals on food and drinks. We all want to be in the know when it comes to these things, but to accomplish this you sometimes have to take the initiative and start stalking some town locals. So we did.

Mammoth Lakes, California, is a five-hour drive or a one-hour flight north of Los Angeles. Convict Lake, which sits two miles west of Highway 395 just before you arrive into town, is pretty popular because it’s easy to get to, offers gorgeous views, and is a legit spot for fishing. But most people don’t know about a trail above the lake that leads you on a breathtaking hike in the Sierras.

The hike’s starting point, near Convict Lake parking lot; photo courtesy Fraka

Name of hike: Convict Creek Hike
Starting point: Convict Lake Trailhead
Round trip distance: 12 miles
Vertical feet: 2,300 feet
Reasons for hike: No crowds, fantastic landscape and views, fishing, to get out of town for a while
Best season: June through October (depending on snow conditions)
Watch out for: Unstable ground, washed out trail sections, slippery and/or falling rocks, bears, coyotes, fast moving clouds (depending on season)
Stock up on: Water, waterproof outerwear, camera, snacks, fishing gear, lantern or headlamp (for overnighters, because campfires aren’t allowed at this elevation)

I discovered this hike thanks to a crew of locals I know that suggested we camp overnight in the back country seven miles above Convict at Dorothy Lake. Seven miles (and fourteen miles round trip) sounded daunting to me, but I wasn’t about to let them know this. It was mid-August, so thunderstorms were rolling in, but we figured they would only produce short, scattered showers as usual.

We soon reached a washed out bridge that used to rise over Convict Creek. The trail abruptly ends at the mound of cement that’s all that’s left of the bridge–you can’t miss it if you are following the trail or the creek. Most people stop hiking at this point, but my guides let me know we’d be crossing the creek, which is more like heavily flowing falls, using a fallen tree and continuing further. I guess I had no choice–I’d already come that far. After a near fail of crossing where I almost seriously hurt myself, we began the ascent up switchbacks towards the top of the falls.

The river crossing; photo courtesy Victor Villa

Although the vertical wasn’t extremely steep, this part of the trail can get a little tricky. Over time, the side of the mountain has been degraded by falling rocks and heavy rain, resulting in the path disappearing entirely and forcing us (mostly me) to slowly climb over wet and unstable rocks above the rushing water below. (This hike would have been a little easier if it hadn’t been thunderstorm season–go figure.) At this point, we were about four miles in.

We soon overcome the sketchy, crumbling mountain section and arrive at a massive valley hoarding a lake, a meadow, and winding creeks filled with plenty of fish. This lake isn’t Dorothy Lake, which is about a mile farther uphill. But at this point in our hike the rain drops started to pour, and we ultimately decide to set up camp at the back of the valley, where there is some tree coverage, and scratch the hike to Dorothy.

Scaling the rocky mountain side; photo courtesy Benjamin Roman

The lake we stumbled upon is Mildred Lake, and we spent the rest of the afternoon fishing, cooking, and trying to dry off. The clouds eventually moved along, and we scored a little bit of sunshine in the lush meadow before the sun set.

The valley view at Mildred Lake; photo courtesy Fraka

Lessons learned from this stalking mission? Don’t underestimate thunderclouds. Ever. Always be equipped with a waterproof jacket and just because the trail may seem to end, there might be something beyond it. Keep trudging forward and you will be rewarded with an insane camping spot and an amazing view. For the first half of the hike the trail is fairly easy with the back half proving to be the most difficult. But the scenery is incredible the whole time. If you’re down to cross a river and scale a mountain, don’t hesitate to head above Convict for this adventure.