John Muir Wilderness: Convict Creek Canyon

Click for larger map

Click for larger map.

Destination: Explore Convict Creek Canyon – including Mildred Lake and Lake Genevieve
Mileage: 15.26 miles round trip – varies based on wanderings
Trailhead: Convict Lake Trailhead, off Hwy 395
Elevation: 7,594 up to 10,821+ feet

As Aspen and I circumnavigated the trail around Convict Lake my gaze kept returning to the striking geology of the Sevehah Cliff. Aspen wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was, she was just happy to be on the trail; I, on the other hand, wanted to explore up the canyon. We didn’t have time on that hike in 2013, but since then, every time I passed on Highway 395 I’ve glanced up the canyon asking, “What’s up there?!” So when Basil and Soils-4 asked for ideas for an Eastern Sierra adventure I tempted them with a few photos from the internet and sealed the permit when we found Bunny and Bighorn Lakes on the map – ironically we didn’t visit either on this trip.

We stayed at Big Spring Campground near Mammoth the night before our trip. The donation-based campground is good for budget-minded folks and quick access to the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center for permit pick up. There was plenty of space at the trailhead, as this area doesn’t seem heavily used beyond Convict Lake – hello solitude!

The 1.24 miles along the lake are relatively mellow, enjoy it while it lasts because the rest of the trail is climbing or working your way through a talus field – and when you’re lucky ascending through a talus field!

The trail along Convict Lake and hiking one of the many debris flows.

The trail along Convict Lake and hiking one of the many talus fields.

Any websites we found in our research of Convict Creek Canyon included warnings of a treacherous water crossing and a section of trail that had been washed out. The washed out section was even included on my Tom Harrison map – that talus field across the trail is here to stay apparently. Due to the lack of water in California this year and our fall timing, the water crossing was a simple rock hop. The initial climb up from there was a different story. The “trail” was a bit hard to find ascending the canyon but wasn’t too bad. On the way back out though I couldn’t tell what was the trail and what was a recent debris flow. I saw the water crossing so I picked my way toward that and at one point stepped on seemingly-stable rock, which made a sudden shift when I went to step off of it. Be sure to test rocks before putting your full weight on them!

The treacherous river crossing followed by the washout

The water crossing followed by the washout.

For this maintenance-neglected trail, I recommend packing a tolerance of heights, steady feet, and trekking poles to make up for any shortcomings in the previous two areas.

Trail conditions

Aspen doesn’t seem to be phased by the trail conditions.

After 4.78 miles on the trail, you’ll crest a small rise to the sweeping view of Mildred Lake with a dramatic backdrop. I could sit here all day and take it in, but this is where most day-hikers aim for, not that there were any to speak of, but we figured we should press on.

Harper Fawn at Mildred Lake

Harper Fawn at Mildred Lake.

A mile-long climb will take you to Lake Dorothy, which had good campsites on the eastern side. However, we’d heard good things about Lake Genevieve so we pressed on another 1.46 miles, with thankfully little elevation gain.

Lake Dorothy

Lake Dorothy

To be honest, while I liked the fall aspens on the far side of the lake, I was just as impressed with Lake Dorothy and would have had either lake to ourselves I bet. However, Basil was a fan of the great pika habitat next to our campsite on the eastern side of the lake, so it was worth the extra mileage.

Convict6

Campsite above Lake Genevieve.

The next morning we took a look at the map and debated between three options: check out the canyon above Lake Genevieve, check out the canyon above Lake Dorothy, or check out the canyon above Mildred Lake – which really meant head for Mount Baldwin. We crossed the first one off the list because we wanted our camp that night closer to the trailhead. Once we hiked to Lake Dorothy we rock-paper-scissored to make the final decision, but the results of that revealed the true desire to attempt Mount Baldwin. This is what happens when your hiking group is an easy-going crowd.

Hike back down to Mildred Lake.

The hike back down to Mildred Lake.

We finished the quick hike to Mildred Lake and set up camp on a low hill on the northern side of the lake. During the spring and summer I think this area would be swarming with mosquitoes, but thankfully that was not the case in the fall.

Our original goal - Mount Baldwin.

Our original goal behind Harper Fawn – Mount Baldwin.

After setting up camp and a quick snack, it was already 12:30 pm, so we aimed for Mount Baldwin with the realistic goal of simply exploring and seeing how far we could make it. The hike started off easy following the eastern edge of the meadow up the canyon and then climbing along a stream to a moonscape, which is where I took the above photo.

View from canyon above Mildred Lake. The best fall colors we spotted.

View from canyon above Mildred Lake and the best fall colors we spotted.

Head to the Eastern Sierras in the next couple of weeks to see peak fall colors! The photo of Aspen above was not the norm this trip, there was still a lot of green painting the slopes.

View of Bright Dot Lake

View of Bright Dot Lake.

With the sun closing in on the mountain tops we settled for the saddle above Bright Dot Lake. Maybe if we hadn’t taken so much time exploring all of the geology above the moonscape we may have made it, but we wanted to see all of the rocks!

Campsite at Mildred Lake

Campsite at Mildred Lake.

Later as we were enjoying dessert waiting for the moon to rise, we realized we finally had company across the lake as we watched a headlamp cruise around the shore. The whole time we were in the wilderness we saw maybe seven folks. The canyon does not easily connect to other trails which may contribute to low use, but there’s plenty to explore and apparently you don’t even have to be good at sharing.

Happy,
Trails

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