How Convict Lake Got its Name

There once was a time when Convict Lake, one of the most photographed and famous bodies of water in California’s Eastern Sierra, was known by other names. 
Names that also hint at the magical and mysterious appeal of the lake’s crystal clear waters.

Unlike many drive-to lakes in the region, Convict was created naturally. It sits snuggled in a box canyon, some 7,583 feet high in the Sierra Nevada. Just south of Mammoth Lakes and a measly couple miles from Scenic Highway 395, Convict Lake has long been popular with anglers and photographers; both pastimes being easily rewarded by the gorgeous alpine lake teeming with trout. 

Peoples of the Paiute tribe have lived in the region since long before Thomas Buoyant lures or digital cameras were around. And these local Native Americans were once known to call the lake “Wit-sa-nap.” They believed that lake Wit-sa-nap was created by the Great Spirit as a safe haven for the magical fish—infused with the spirits of children—that swim through the surrounding mountains streams.

The relatively small lake covers around 170 acres and is still known for producing some of the largest and healthiest trout you’ll ever see. And, they’re pretty easy to see: It’s usually possible to see halfway to the bottom of the oblong lake since the water is so clear. One of the deepest in the region, Convict Lake has a low of 140’ and averages 100’ in depth. Its depth allows the water to remain cold and ideal for trout to live long, happy and well-fed lives. There are even tales that Convict Lake is home to a monstrous brown trout named ”Horgon” that few have seen and no one has ever landed.

After miners discovered the area, Convict became known as Monte Diablo. Calling the lake and the creek that runs to and from it “Mountain of the Devil” seems rather odd. You’d think that’s what they would have called the steaming and boiling Hot Creek just a short horseback ride down the Long Valley. Perhaps whoever gave it that name knew a bit about its future, for the devil would rear his ugly mug at the lake in 1871.

In September of that year, a group of convicts escaped from Carson City, Nevada, and were cornered by a local posse by the lake. A shootout took place and two members of the posse were killed, including Benton merchant Robert Morrison. The biggest peak above the lake, Mount Morrison, was named in his honor and the lake was renamed after the incident. 

The convicts were eventually caught and two were brought to frontier justice. Several movies have been made about how Convict Lake got its name, and even more movies, commercials and ads have been shot at the picturesque lake. Beauty is just part of its appeal. Convict Lake, however, calls to people with more than just its looks. The unique character of the place has a pull, too

The Convict Lake Resort, which originally opened in 1929, and the nearby campground are always full of folks who return to the place year after year, generation after generation. As Brian Balarksy, whose family has owned the resort since 1982 explained, people love the traditions of fishing and visiting Convict Lake and return with their family and friends each season.

While the Convict Lake is as pretty and as easy to get to as any place you’ll ever find, it’s the character of the lake and its unique history that really resonates with folks, and call them back again and again.

Three Cool Things to Do at Convict Lake

Fish

Convict Lake has been popular with anglers for nearly a hundred years now, and for good reason. The lake is easy to drive to, has great access along its banks (including a three-mile trail that loops around the whole thing) and is home to loads of rainbow and brown trout, some of them classified as “hogs.” Convict Lake Resort also hosts two fishing derbies each season: the “Round Up at the Lake” to kick off the fishing season each spring and the “Ambush at the Lake” as the season winds down in the fall. The entrance fees are used to keep the lake well stocked and the prizes, bragging rights and annual pins are worth it.

Eat

Unlike the fishing season, which runs from April to November, the Restaurant at Convict Lake Resort is open year-round. The romantic and rustic setting is considered one of the best places to dine in the Eastern Sierra and is a favorite spot for special occasion meals. The restaurant and its low-key lounge are beloved for their rich and hearty mountain meals like lamb, beef wellington and rainbow trout. 

Learn

Originally established in 1935 by the US Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife to study hatchery trout in a native stream, SNARL (Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab) is located along Convict Creek. One of the world’s foremost freshwater research facilities, SNARL is part of UC Santa Barbara’s Natural Reserve System. Tours of SNARL and the Valentine Camp in Mammoth Lakes are offered in the summer, and each spring SNARL puts on a popular, free lecture series about studies going on in the region.

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Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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