In the Eastern Sierra, a natural wonder known as Convict Lake captures the awe of photographers and anglers alike. This pristine body of water, previously known by other names, has a rich history that adds a mystical allure to its crystal-clear waters.
Nestled in a box canyon at an elevation of 7,583 feet in the Sierra Nevada, Convict Lake is a few miles off Scenic Highway 395, south of Mammoth Lakes. Unlike many of its counterparts in the region, the lake is a natural creation rather than a man-made reservoir.
The lake, originally known to the local Paiute tribe as “Wit-sa-nap,” has been an integral part of the region long before modern inventions like digital cameras or Thomas Buoyant lures. The tribe believed that the Great Spirit created the lake as a sanctuary for magical fish, believed to be imbued with the spirits of children, who swam through the mountain streams surrounding the lake.
Today, the 170-acre lake is renowned for its population of large, healthy trout, which thrive in the lake’s clear, cool waters. The lake’s exceptional clarity allows for visibility up to halfway to the bottom of the oblong water body. With an average depth of 100 feet and a maximum depth of 140 feet, Convict Lake provides an ideal habitat for trout to flourish. Local lore even speaks of a gigantic brown trout named “Horgon,” a creature rarely seen and never caught.
The lake underwent a name change after miners discovered the area, dubbing it “Monte Diablo” or “Mountain of the Devil.” This moniker seems puzzling considering its serene, picturesque nature. However, the name foreshadowed darker times in 1871 when a group of convicts, escaped from Carson City, Nevada, were trapped and confronted by a posse at the lake. The ensuing shootout resulted in the deaths of two posse members, including Benton merchant Robert Morrison. In honor of Morrison, the highest peak overlooking the lake and the lake itself were subsequently renamed.
The convicts were eventually apprehended and faced frontier justice. The incident inspired several film adaptations and the picturesque lake has served as a shooting location for numerous movies, commercials, and advertisements.
The appeal of Convict Lake goes beyond its visual beauty. Its unique character and history create a magnetic attraction for visitors. The Convict Lake Resort, established in 1929, and the nearby campground are perennially occupied by visitors returning year after year, across generations. Brian Balarksy, whose family has owned the resort since 1982, attributes the consistent patronage to the tradition of fishing and visiting Convict Lake.
Despite its easy accessibility and undeniable beauty, it is the lake’s distinctive character and intriguing history that truly resonate with visitors, compelling them to return time and again.