Convict Lake: From violent past to peaceful popularity
Written by Gary Voet

 

CONVICT LAKE, Calif. - In 1871, 29 desperate prisoners made a break in Carson City, Nev. - a real shoot-'em-up affair.  Before they left the area, they shot the warden. They killed some of his family and kidnapped others.

Then they grabbed some horses, and six headed south into California, stopping at a lake nestled in the Eastern Sierra just south of Mammoth Lakes. The lake had a steep, glacial peak on the west. On the east was a lush meadow with a meandering creek.

A perfect place to relax yet retreat to safety if need be. But it wasn't safe enough. A posse was giving chase.

When the posse caught up to the escapees, it was a real shoot-'em-out affair. Two of the posse were killed (Mount Morrison, elevation 12,268, on the lake's south shore was named for one of them: Robert Morrison).

The convicts escaped, but two were caught later in Round Valley near Bishop. These two were hanged by a local group, which took them (apparently without too much trouble) from the officers and posse.

 

Ironic that this peaceful, scenic place was the site of such a bloodbath.

Today, it's known as Convict Lake, with scenery and recreational opportunities second to none. The contrasting environments of high desert, lush forests and lake-studded mountains put the area in a class by itself.

Fishing - Both the lake and Convict Creek coming out of it offer good trout fishing. It is not unusual for big brown trout (up to 15 pounds) to be caught just below the Convict Lake outlet. For now, fishing season is open from the last Saturday in April through Halloween. But the California Department of Fish and Game is considering extending the season, possibly as early as next year, through November (snow usually doesn't hit the area until December).

Ninety-nine percent of the fish in the lake are rainbow trout. Weekly heavy stockings from two private hatcheries as well as F&G affords good fishing. Within the past eight days, 400 large fish (4-5 pounds on average) were stocked in the lake. Convict Creek, in the campground area, is stocked once a week with 400-500 fish, three-quarters of a pound on average.

Other activities - Stables are nearby for horse rentals or guided trips, which are offered four times a day. Hiking, offering some of the most panoramic views in Northern California, is an option. A trail routed along the north side of the lake, then along upper Convict Creek, and eventually into the John Muir Wilderness, is a must. Fishing boats with six-horsepower engines and three 18-foot pontoon boats are available for rent.

Accommodations - There are 88 sites for tents or RVs. Most sites can accommodate RVs up to 41 feet, some up to 55 feet. There are no reservations, and the cost is $10 a night with a seven-day limit.

Though the campsites are set in high desert-like surroundings, along the creek but out of sight of the lake, and the wind hits a lot of the exposed sites, they are popular, with an average occupancy rate of 94 percent.

Most cabins date from 1929 and are rustic though comfortable. Some new cabins have been constructed (one sleeps 32 people). Reservations are a must - (800) 992-2260 - and the rates range from $83 to $650 per night.

Specifics and location - Convict Lake is nestled in a bowl at 7,853 feet and is less than a mile long and a half-mile wide - 168 acres in all. At its deepest, it is 140 feet. Much of the lake is more than 100 feet deep. From Lee Vining on U.S. 395, drive south for 31 miles (five miles past Mammoth Junction) to Convict Lake Road, then about 2 1/2 miles to the lake.

 


 

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