Convict Canyon leads to spectacular beauty
But you are going to have to work for it!
Story and photos by Wendilyn Grasseschi
High above teal-blue Convict Lake south of Mammoth, at the very top of steep and rugged Convict Creek canyon, lies one of the strangest and most beautiful places in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
There’s a lake up here, deep and blue and ringed with white beaches and a big rock to sun on. The water in this lake is electric blue, a color more common to the exotic glacial lakes of Canada than here in the Central Sierra Nevada. There’s a meadow here so thick with wildflowers it looks like you can walk across it on the backs of flowers.
There’s a creek that feeds the lake and it too, is that crazy, electric blue color that glows in the dark. It meanders in lazy curls and deep pools and fish jump at the slightest cast. The water here is so clear, it looks like light if it were water.
Beyond that, past another lake and another and another, the meadow flings itself up against the big bulk of 13,123foot Red Slate Mountain. Deep, hundred-feet deep, tight and narrow gorges carved into the grey marble rock of nearby Mt. Baldwin echo with the sound of waterfalls, dozens of them cut into the soft rock, lined with emerald moss and bright flowers. High on Baldwin’s silver slopes, giant calcite crystals the size of a man lie scattered on the grey-silver marble-rock like giant, glittering diamonds.
Over the ridge, there to the west, giant, indigo-blue Dorothy Lake lies and past it, blue Genevieve Lake and past it, sapphire Laurel Lakes. So go on.
Get out there.
This hike takes you to Mildred Lake at the headwaters of Convict Canyon, high above Convict Lake.
The lake can be reached one of two ways; via a 4WD road and the Laurel Lakes trailhead just a few miles southeast of Mammoth Lakes, or, via the Convict Lake trailhead.
The hike described here goes up Convict Creek because the Laurel Lakes trailhead route is closed due to a massive rock slide earlier this summer (2021). The Convict Creek route is a steep, hard climb up Convict Canyon, beginning at the trailhead near the Convict Lake Resort.
The trail is also steep, rugged and no longer maintained.
Start at the backpackers trailhead at Convict Lake and walk around the lake, then begin a long slog up Convict Lake Canyon. The going is steep but reasonable until you get in about three miles where an old washout makes the trail hard to find. Stick to the most defined trail and cross the creek, which is going to be very easy this drought fall, but in high water years can be very dangerous.
Continue up the trail to Mildred Lake; a shallow lake with incredible beaches. A turquoise creek flows into if through deep pools and quiet riffles.
There are few places in the Sierra like this place. Perhaps it is the marble rock in giant Baldwin, Morrison and Laurel mountains that makes Convict Creek here a color unlike anything I have ever seen in any other Sierra basin, most of which are dominated by granite rock, not marble. The grey-silver rock that underlies the creek seems almost transparent and the water itself an indescribable, almost swimming-pool blue, unique to this drainage. There are permanent snowfields above this meadow on big Red Slate and they send down fine-ground rock, something like the glacial flour that gives Canada’s lakes is turquoise color. Maybe that is the explanation, although I have yet to find someone who really knows.
But the pools in the creek are deep and blue and perfect, the flowers lining the creek are some of the best in the Sierra.
If you want to go further – and you will – the hike along the creek toward the base of Red Slate is one easy, meandering, wonder of a mile. On each side of the meadow and at the southern end, big waterfalls drop down from the heights; three in all, dropping out of Bighorn and Wit-so-no-pah lakes to the west and Constance Lake to the south.
The hike to Dorothy Lake, much bigger and with better camping, beckons and beyond that, the whole upper basin of Convict Creek waits to be explored. Or, head up to perfectly round Bright Dot Lake is another option; a tough, cross-country haul at the base of Mt. Baldwin that is worth every moment. The same with green-blue Constance and little Bighorn Lake; all within a few hours of Mildred with some moderate to rough cross-country scrambling.
Retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Hike details Length:
5 miles one way to Mildred
Difficulty: Elevation gain and loss: Getting there
Moderate to strenuous 2,400 feet
Drive to the Convict Lake trailhead about five miles south of Mammoth Lakes and about two miles up Convict Lake Road.