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Convict Lake: Things to Do + Travel Guide for This Stunning Eastern Sierra Lake!

In a region studded with numerous scenic lakes, Convict Lake is definitely worth visiting, for its drop-dead gorgeous setting, beautiful turquoise color, easy accessibility, and variety of fun activities on offer. Convict Lake is indisputably one of the most stunning lakes in California.

Located just south of the town of Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra of California, picture-perfect Convict Lake is nestled at the base of towering mountain peaks, including the 12,241-foot Mount Morrison. It looks sensational any time of day and in every season of the year.

A view of Convict Lake in California
Convict Lake from the water

Carved by glaciers, and located at about 7,850 feet above sea level, Convict Lake is oblong in shape and just under one mile at its maximum length. Parts of it are as deep as 140 feet, making Convict Lake one of the deepest lakes in the area.

Enjoying time at Convict Lake is one of the top things to do in Mammoth Lakes, and the lake also makes for an enjoyable stop on a Highway 395 road trip. But not only is Convict Lake a stellar day trip destination, it is also a tranquil and scenic spot in which to vacation for several days.

Planning a visit to this scenic Eastern Sierra lake? Read on to discover the best things to do at Convict Lake, plus our suggestions for where to stay and eat.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Fascinating History of Convict Lake
Things to Do at Convict Lake
Getting to Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, CA
Parking at Convict Lake
Where to Stay When Visiting Convict Lake
Where to Eat at Convict Lake, California
The Best Time to Visit Convict Lake

The Fascinating History of Convict Lake

Convict Lake was known to the Paiute Native Americans. They called it Wit-sa-nap. When Europeans came to the region, they named it Monte Diablo.

If you are wondering why the lake is today called Convict Lake, a series of events in September 1871 led to this beautiful lake getting its present name.

A view of Convict Lake in the morning
Convict Lake looks spectacular any time of day!

On the 17th of the month, a group of convicts escaped from Nevada State Prison in Carson City. The group included murderers and train robbers. Part of the group, led by murderer Charlie Jones, made camp in the area near the lake.

Billy Poor, a mail rider, accidentally chanced upon the camp as he was out delivering mail. Fearing that he would divulge their presence to the authorities, the convicts murdered Poor.

Angered by the murder, a posse went after the convicts, meeting up with them at Monte Diablo Creek.

In the shootout that followed, some convicts were killed, but so were Deputy Mono Jim and Wells Fargo Agent Robert Morrison from the posse. The remaining escaped convicts were all eventually caught and lynched or executed.

Convict Lake is a beautiful blue color
A view of the turquoise water at Convict Lake

Following these events, Monte Diablo Creek and Lake were renamed Convict Creek and Convict Lake. The highest peak at the lake is named Mount Morrison, after Agent Morrison, and the nearby lower peak is called Mono Jim Peak.

An interpretive plaque near the bridge over Convict Creek describes the fascinating history of the lake.

Things to Do at Convict Lake

Go Boating on Convict Lake

Convict Lake Resort Marina offers boat rentals at Convict Lake. The marina is open from sunrise until sunset in season, which generally runs from late April until late October each year. You can rent motor boats and different sizes of pontoon boats. You can also bring your own boat and launch it at Convict Lake.

Boats lined up at the Convict Lake Marina
Pontoon boats for rent at Convict Lake

Getting out on the water is a fantastic way to enjoy the beauty of Convict Lake. We saw families barbecuing and sunbathing as they cruised the lake in boats. Fishing from a boat is also a popular activity at Convict Lake.

We spotted a bald eagle hanging out on a tall pine on the shore as we cruised Convict Lake in a pontoon boat. The boat we chose had comfortable padded seats and a shaded top, and there was a pleasant breeze to temper of heat of midsummer.

Boating Convict Lake in California
Boating is a fun activity at Convict Lake

Convict Lake boat rentals are extremely popular, and do tend to sell out, especially during the summer, so if you want to enjoy a couple of hours (or more!) on a boat at Convict Lake, reserve in advance, or get up real early and arrive for the first slot of the day: it’s the slot most likely to be available without a reservation.

Enjoy Stand-Up Paddleboarding or Kayaking at Convict Lake

Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are other exciting ways to get out onto the water at Convict Lake. You can enjoy the beautiful surroundings as you paddle, or drift idly, on the beautiful lake.

Kayaking or canoeing Convict Lake in California is fun!
Kayaking Convict Lake on a beautiful summer day

While you can paddle Convict Lake as a fun activity on its own, we saw folks fishing from kayaks and canoes as well.

The Convict Lake Resort Marina offers rentals, or you can bring your own kayak or SUP boards. Kayaks and boards can be launched at various spots around the shore of Convict Lake.

Fish Convict Lake

Fishing is a hugely popular activity at Convict Lake. We’ve seen people fishing from the shore, from float tubes, from boats and canoes, and from the bridge over Convict Creek.

The 170-acre Convict Lake is stocked with rainbow, German brown trout, and brookies, and is considered one of the best fishing destinations in the Eastern Sierra. Even if you do not catch anything, it is a super scenic place to hang out with a line!

A young angler at Convict Lake in California
A young angler tries his luck from the shore

With a long fishing season that starts on the last Saturday in April and ends in mid-November, and easy access, anglers flock to Convict Lake to test their skill. Convict Lake holds two fishing derbies annually, one each in the spring and fall.

Fishing at Convict Lake comes under the auspices of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. You need a fishing license for sport fishing in California, and you have to follow California fishing regulations.

Swim or Catch Some Rays at a Beach

There are several beaches around the shore of Convict Lake, a couple of them that are good-sized and popular places for beach activities like swimming and sunbathing during the warmer months. The shore is pebbly and rocky, so water shoes are advised.

There are also numerous smaller spots around the shore of Convict Lake where you can access the lake and have a quiet place to relax and enjoy the water and the sun.

A lake access sign at Convict Lake in California
You can access the water at many places

The two largish beaches we saw are located along the eastern shore and the southeastern shore. Both beaches were busy on the summer afternoons we visited Convict Lake. Arrive early to snag prime spots for the day or to enjoy the water in relative quiet, or join in the lively activity in the afternoons.

Bring beach chairs so you can sit in the shallows with your feet in the cold water in summer, and swimsuits and towels if you want to enjoy a dip in the clear waters. There are picnic tables along the east shore and a picnic area on the south shore, if you bring a picnic meal to enjoy at the lake.

Convict Lake’s clear cool waters are great for swimming, whether you stick close to the shore or venture into deeper waters. If you choose to swim, watch out for fishing lines and hooks, and keep a sharp eye out for boats.

Convict Lake is great for a swim in the summer
The cool clear waters of Convict Lake

Walk the Trail Around the Shore of Convict Lake

One of the most popular things to do at Convict Lake is walking the trail around the shore of the lake. On good weather days, expect to meet lots of other hikers on this trail during the day.

The Convict Lake Loop Trail is about 2.5 miles long, and you can hike it clockwise, starting at the bridge over Convict Creek, or counter clockwise, beginning at the boat launch ramp.

Walking the Loop Trail around  Convict Lake near Mammoth Lakes, CA
Walking the Convict Lake Loop Trail

The Convict Lake shore trail is classed as relatively flat and easy by Eastern Sierra standards, and we saw hikers of all ages walking the trail when we did the loop, including older folks and families with young kids. You can also just do the paved portion along the eastern shore.

The trail is extremely scenic, and you can look for wildlife and birds as you walk, and enjoy wildflowers and fall colors in season. We saw two bald eagles and a number of other birds when we did the trail in July. The wild roses were done for the year, but crimson columbines and other wildflowers were still blooming.

A view from the Convict Lake Loop Trail
The loop trail hugs the shore of the lake

There is a boardwalk over the creek at the far end of the lake that may be difficult, or impossible, to cross in early spring when snow melt causes the water level to rise. Exercise caution if you walk the trail during such time.

Dogs on leash are permitted on the Convict Lake loop trail.

Venture into the Back Country

More adventurous seasoned hikers can access the John Muir Wilderness from the trailhead at Convict Lake, whether for the day or on longer overnight backpacking trips.

The trailhead at Convict Lake leading into the John Muir Wilderness
Trailhead at Convict Lake

The rugged and strenuous Convict Creek Trail leads to Mildred Lake, Lake Dorothy, Lake Genevieve, Lake Edith, and Laurel Lakes. The initial climb is steep, the terrain is rough, there are multiple stream crossings, and sections have been washed out.

If you have the appropriate vehicle (4WD), you can drive up Laurel Lakes Road to Laurel Lakes and start your hike from there to the other lakes in the area. The scenery is fabulous, and you won’t have to deal with the steep initial climb.

Overnight trips into the Eastern Sierra backcountry require permits. There is a quota for backpacking Convict Creek Trail, so reserve your spot well ahead of your trip.

Trail to the backcountry at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra
Hiking at Convict Lake

Photograph Sunrise at Convict Lake

Convict Lake is one of the most gorgeous sunrise photo spots in the Eastern Sierra. As the sun rises, the light paints the top of the mountains behind the lake. The light gradually washes over the mountains, creating an unforgettable scene.

On still mornings, the water at Convict Lake is like glass, resulting in stunning reflections of the mountains, rocks, foliage by the shore, and the occasional early morning boat out on the water.

Convict Lake at Sunrise
Photographing Convict Lake at sunrise

If a great sunrise is in the forecast, you must arrive well before sunrise to secure a coveted spot for your tripod on the east shore of the lake, along the bridge over Convict Creek. This is the perfect spot from which to capture the sun painting the mountains.

While sunrise is considered the perfect time to photograph Convict Lake, it makes a great subject other uncrowded times of day as well. The earlier you arrive, the better your photos will be, because the water starts rippling as the wind kicks up.

Go Horseback Riding at Convict Lake

Want to explore the Sierra on horseback? Convict Lake Resort offers horseback rides at the lake, operated by Rock Creek Packing Station. The two-hour rides are perfect for beginners or intermediate riders.

Horseback riding is offered at Convict Lake, California
Horseback rides are offered by the resort

Horse rides start at the horse corral on the east side of the resort, and traverse the north shore of Convict Lake. You will dismount at a stunning meadow located by Convict Creek at the far end of the lake, to enjoy an included drink and snack.

Two rides are offered each week day, and three on each weekend day, in season. Call the resort and reserve in advance to secure your spots.

Look for Bald Eagles (and Other Birds)

If you enjoy birdwatching, bring your binoculars and zoom lens when you visit Convict Lake: several species have been spotted here, including the majestic bald eagle.

Bald Eagle at Convict Lake California
Bald eagle seen from the loop trail

At each of our four visits to Convict Lake in July, we’ve spotted bald eagles, sometime more than one. You may see them flying over the lake or against the mountains, but you may also see them roosting on the pine trees along the east shore. Don’t forget to scour the tops of these trees as you walk the trail or cruise the lake.

Bald Eagle at Convict Lake
A bald eagle photographed from the boat!

With its striking white face and yellow beak, the bald eagle is a magnificent sight and much-coveted by birders visiting the lake, but you may see other birds at Convict Lake as well, especially if you walk the trail around the lake. Brewer’s blackbirds and American robins are common.

Walk the trail early in the day and you will hear the calls and songs of several species, and possibly see them as well: mountain chickadees, Clark’s nutcrackers, dark-eyed juncos, warblers, and sparrows, and even osprey and gulls in season.

A juvenile Brewer's blackbird at Convict Lake in California
A baby Brewer’s blackbird at Convict Lake

Look for Wildlife

Mule deer are a common sight around Convict Lake. We saw a herd of about 10 to 12 mule deer grazing on the hillside by the resort one morning, and a single deer when we visited the restaurant at the resort one evening.

A mule deer at Convict Lake
A young mule deer looks straight into the camera

Smaller animals, such as squirrels, pine martens, pika, and marmots can be seen through the day. You may see the occasional black bear, especially early or late in the day, and the Convict Lake area is also home to mountain lions.

The larger mammals usually try to avoid humans, but if you plan to hike in the area, especially in the early or late hours, it is a good idea to read up on safety around wildlife.

Colorful butterfly among the flowers at Convict Lake in California
A colorful butterfly alights on wildflowers

Enjoy Wildflowers in Spring and Summer

In the spring and early summer, the shore of Convict Lake bursts into color as several species of wildflowers put on a show along the trail that runs around the lake. In some years, you may see wildflowers in bloom even late into the summer.

We saw lots of California wild rose around Convict Lake, especially along the eastern shore. By the time we visited in July, we only saw hips, but it must have looked spectacular when the roses were in bloom earlier in the season.

We did see lots of crimson columbine, as well as red paintbrush, purple lupine, and pink phlox. Earlier in the season, you will find more wildflower varieties, so bring a wildflower guide and a good lens if you like to identify and photograph the wildflowers you see.

Crimson columbine is bloom at Convict Lake, California
A delicate crimson columbine in bloom!

Admire Leaf Colors in Fall

Fall is a breathtaking time to visit Convict Lake. The air is crisp, and the shore is alight with color if you visit around or at peak, which generally occurs in early October.

Willows fringe the shore of the lake, and there are lots of aspen trees along the shore as well. So you will see a range of foliage colors in the fall, from bright pure yellow to ochre, orange, red, rust, and burgundy, depending on when in the season you visit.

Convict Lake in the fall
Enjoy leaf color at Convict Lake in the fall

Early in the morning is a fabulous time to enjoy (and photograph) the fall color at Convict Lake. When the water in still, the colors reflect in it, offering an added dimension of enjoyment.

Dine at the Restaurant at Convict Lake

The Restaurant at Convict Lake is considered one of the top fine dining spots in Mammoth Lakes, and with good reason. The food is so good we dined here twice during our most recent Mammoth Lakes stay.

Eating at the Restaurant at Convict Lake is a must when you visit!
Enjoy a special meal at The Restaurant at Convict Lake

Everything we ate at the Restaurant at Convict Lake was delicious, but we especially loved the baked brie en croute appetizer. The duck and the beef Wellington were superb, as was the pasta with Manchego cheese. Sadly, we were so full each time that we did not get to try the desserts, which are supposed to be fabulous as well.

Baked Brie en  Croute Appetizer at the Restaurant at Convict Lake
The baked brie appetizer is so delicious!

Reserve your table a few days in advance: the restaurant is popular and was filled to capacity each time we ate there. The Restaurant at Convict Lake is open for dinner each evening, and there is a lounge for drinks as well.

Getting to Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, CA

Convict Lake is one of the easiest alpine lakes you can access in the Eastern Sierra. The lake is located a few miles south of the town of Mammoth Lakes, and a scenic paved road leads right up to the shore.

From Mammoth Lakes and points north, take US 395 South to Convict Lake Road (see map). Turn right onto Convict Lake Road and drive two miles to arrive at the lake.

From the south, take US 395 North to Convict Lake Road, which comes up right before the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport. Turn left and follow Convict Lake Road about two miles to its end.

You can’t drive all around Convict Lake, but you can drive right up to it and a little ways along the eastern shore.

Crimson columbines at Convict Lake
Crimson columbines at Convict Lake in July

Parking at Convict Lake

There is quite a bit of parking at Convict Lake, but you may still find it difficult to get a spot during the day in season. Parking for the marina is located right by the marina, and the spots here tend to fill up quickest.

More day use parking is available along the road that runs along the east shore of the lake, and in the day use parking lot on the east shore, which also accommodates large vehicles like RVs and trailers.

View of Convict Lake from Day Use Parking Lot
A view of the lake from the parking lot

Parking at Convict Lake is free. Arrive early to be sure of a spot, especially on nice-weather days in season!

Where to Stay When Visiting Convict Lake

Given that Convict Lake is located so close to town, you can stay in Mammoth Lakes and visit the lake for the day. But if the idea of a vacation at Convict Lake appeals, you can stay by the lake as well.

Convict Lake Campground is open between late April and late October, coinciding with fishing season at the lake. The campground is located by Convict Creek, very close to the lake, and the surroundings are scenic and tranquil.

A view of Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, CA
Convict Lake can be a tranquil place to stay

The campground offers 88 sites, and tent, trailer, and RV sites are available, although there are no hookups. Some sites have views of the lake. Book at recreation.gov well ahead of your planned visit.

Convict Lake Resort offers cabins of various sizes year round, from cozy studios to lodges with several bedrooms. You can book directly on the resort website.

Where to Eat at Convict Lake, CA

The Restaurant at Convict Lake is a fine dining option for dinner close to the lake. The restaurant offers superb food in a comfortable ambience, and casual attire is acceptable. It is open all year long.

Aspen Grill is open for breakfast and lunch everyday during the season. Vegetarian options are sparse to non-existent.

Beef Wellington at The Restaurant at Convict Lake in CA
Beef Wellington: delicious!

You can also bring a picnic meal to enjoy at one of the picnic tables along the shore of the lake.

The Best Time to Visit Convict Lake

You can visit Convict Lake any time of year: it is beautiful in every season. For the widest range of activities, however, visit between spring and fall.

Walking the Convict Lake Loop Trail in the summer
Hiking Convict Lake in the summer

Visit in late spring or early summer, once the lake is fully thawed, to enjoy wildflowers at their peak along the trail around the lake. Fishing season begins in late April. In the spring, you may still see snow on the mountains that surround the lake, making for beautiful photos.

Later in the summer and into early fall, you may not see snow on the mountain peaks, but the mountains exhibit stunning colors and textures when bereft of snow, creating a gorgeous backdrop for the turquoise waters of the lake.

Convict Lake in the summer
Convict Lake on a nice July day

In the fall, Convict Lake offers outstanding fall foliage and the weather is still generally suitable for hiking, although you may need to bundle up, especially early or late in the day. Fishing season at the lake continues into early to mid November.

In winter, you may find Convict Lake frozen and the surrounding mountains blanketed in snow, creating a breathtakingly beautiful scene. The trail around the lake is not maintained in winter, and many services shut down for the winter.

Picnic table on the shore of Convict Lake in California
Have a picnic at Convict Lake!

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Planning to explore more of the Eastern Sierra? Check out some of our other detailed Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley travel guides and articles!

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Discover the best things to do at Convict Lake, California, from boating and fishing to hiking and birdwatching!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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