Convict Lake Resort: Wild West History, Hospitality Near Mammoth Lakes, California

Follow

 

 

Convict Lake in winter. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort
Convict Lake in winter. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort

Convict Lake Resort in the rugged mountains of the Eastern Sierra Nevada once was part of a wild west saga. Now it’s a peaceful lakeside mountain compound made up of 28 cabins, three vacation homes, a fine-dining restaurant and a general store. 

History of Convict Lake Resort

Convict Lake wasn’t always peaceful. In 1871, it was the site of a bloody shootout between six convicts who escaped from a Carson City, NV prison and Sheriff George Hightower and his posse who pursued them. The inmates fled after killing two of the good guys but were later captured in Round Valley south of Mount Diablo Lake and Creek. After the gun battle, the residents renamed the lake and creek and the peaks above them to honor the two posse members who were killed, merchant Robert Morrison and Indian scout Mono Jim. The lofty 12,241-foot peak above Convict Lake is now called Mt. Morrison; the smaller one below it, Mono Jim. 

Mt. Morrison, prominent peak in the Eastern Sierra. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Mt. Morrison, prominent peak in the Eastern Sierra. Photo by Claudia Carbone

Sometime before 1929, Convict Lake Camp opened as popular camping spot and grew over the years. It has had only three owners since, including the present ownership group. “We have great hiking, a beautiful lake, abundant wildlife, a top 100 restaurant, and modern amenities with a mountain experience,” said Brian Balarsky, president and general manager. “Plus it’s a short drive {10.5 miles} to civilization at Mammoth Lakes.”

The mountain experience part is especially true. Convict Lake Resort is rustic and homey, not posh and pretentious. The staff is super friendly; you’ll be on a first-name basis in no time. An old-fashioned general store acts as front desk, activity and information center, grocery and retail store, and the place to order breakfast and lunch. Gravel paths around the cabins contribute to the laid-back ambiance. And you can wear jeans to dinner. 

The sheer beauty of Convict Lake basin caught the eye of Hollywood. Scenes for How the West Was Won, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Steve McQueen’s Nevada Smith were shot there, as well as ad photos for Nature Valley granola bars. The 1951 western film The Secret of Convict Lake was based on the 1871 true-life story. 

Convict Lake. Photo by Dino Vournas
Convict Lake. Photo by Dino Vournas

Lodging at Convict Lake Resort

Cabins dating from the 1930s and as recent as 2007 dot the property under the shadow of  towering Mt. Morrison. Our cabin—a vacation home—is one of the luxury ones. The three-bedroom, three-bath house sits in a secluded spot at the top of the compound right below Mt. Morrison.

Laurel Ridge Lodge. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort
Laurel Ridge Lodge. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort

Laurel Ridge has a completely stocked gourmet kitchen that opens to a gorgeous living/dining room furnished in elegant wood and leather mountain decor. A wall of windows and glass doors look out to a sunny deck with furniture and a hot-tub facing Laurel Mountain. Special features include spa-quality bathrooms, bathrobes, four TVs, ceiling fans, private master-suite deck, and laundry facilities.

Inside Laurel Ridge Cabin. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Inside Laurel Ridge Cabin. Photo by Claudia Carbone

Other cabins are more rustic but nonetheless charming and mountainy. All are heated and completely furnished with stocked kitchens and complimentary coffee, hot chocolate and tea. TV and WiFi are free, and all have decks with charcoal grills and patio furniture to soak in the spectacular scenery. Six cabins are handicap accessible. A coin-operated laundry is handy for cleaning grubby clothes that will get dirty from outdoor adventures. Pricing ranges from $109-$1099, depending on size of cabin, time of year and day of week. Summer is high season and weekends are pricier that mid-week.

Smaller cabin. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Smaller cabin. Photo by Claudia Carbone

Dining at Convict Lake Resort

The Restaurant at Convict Lake Resort is a destination by itself. People come from miles away just to have dinner in the wood-paneled dining room. I usually can judge a restaurant by the quality of its salads. If the lettuce is crisp and cold and the dressing clings like lace to every leaf, the rest will be top-notch. The Caeser salad easily meets my criteria. My trout dish arrived crusted in cashews with a lemon-chardonnay butter sauce while a healthy portion of veggies filled up the rest of the plate. For dessert, we ordered Bananas Foster that was flambéed expertly at the table.

Caesar salad at The Restaurant at Convict Lake. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Caesar salad at The Restaurant at Convict Lake. Photo by Claudia Carbone

If you don’t want to cook in your cabin, you can grab breakfast and lunch from a food truck parked across from the general store during the warm months. We ate at picnic tables on the lawn. I loved the fish tacos topped with a yummy chipotle sauce or lunch.

Breakfast al fresco from the food truck. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort
Breakfast al fresco from the food truck. Photo courtesy of Convict Lake Resort

Activities at Convict Lake Resort

Fishing

One of the deepest lakes in the region, Convict Lake is stocked weekly with Rainbow and German Brown trout. You can bait fish from the shore or rent a boat from the marina. They offer pontoons, motor boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards.

Fishing at Convict Lake. Photo by Dino Vournas
Fishing at Convict Lake. Photo by Dino Vournas

There are no guides at the resort, so for fly fishing, you can ask them to contact Scott Flint, a professional guide with The Troutfitter who will take you to the best holes in the Sierra. He took us to nearby Hot Creek, a beautiful basin created about 700,000 years ago from a volcanic eruption. I caught three!

Fishing at Hot Creek near Convict Lake Resort. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Fishing at Hot Creek near Convict Lake Resort. Photo by Claudia Carbone

Hiking

A three-mile loop following the shoreline around the lake is a great hike for families and a cross-country trail in winter. For adventure seekers and campers, Convict Lake Trailhead accesses the back country of the John Muir Wilderness. The folks in the general store can help you find the ideal hike and camp spot.

Horseback Riding

The stables are a long walk or short car ride from the cabins. I was not impressed by the outfitter who was lackadaisial about safety. I’ve been riding horses all my life, so I was fine. But there were several children in our group who knew nothing about riding. He gave them no basic instruction, did not offer helmets (though it’s not a law in California, it certainly is a best practice), and there was only one wrangler for seven of us (most outfitters send out two). We stopped in a meadow, dismounted to stretch our legs and have snacks. The snacks were half-filled opened water bottles and bags of leftover chips! Apparently he didn’t restock his pack after the last ride. After 20 minutes of listening to him talk about himself, we mounted up and headed back the way we came. Though I was concerned for the kids, I still enjoyed the views from the shoreline trail.

Horseback riding at Convict Lake Resort. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Horseback riding at Convict Lake Resort. Photo by Claudia Carbone

Convict Lake Resort is in southern Mono County in California’s Eastern Sierra. It seems to be in the middle of a beautiful nowhere, but in reality it’s only 15 minutes from Mammoth Lakes, 50 minutes from Yosemite National Park, and about 2 1/2 hours from Lake Tahoe with a lot of little towns along the way. There’s much to see and do in this rugged country. Mammoth Mountain has long been one of my favorite places to ski in the U.S. It looks formidable in this summer photo!

Front side of Mammoth Mountain. Photo by Claudia Carbone
Front side of Mammoth Mountain. Photo by Claudia Carbone

For more, visit www.monocounty.org.

Convict Lake Resort2000 Convict Lake Road, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; 760-934-3800; convictlake.com.

Claudia Carbone is an award-winning travel writer based in Denver. Read about other hotels she’s visited in Sleepin’ Around.