Spend a spring afternoon out on the water at Mammoth Lakes’ best-kept secret.

Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, California
Mammoth Lakes Tourism/Josh Wray
Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, California

I want to let you in on a travel secret that I’ve kept to myself every spring for nearly 10 years. It involves a pontoon, a box canyon, the Sierra Nevada, and a crystal-clear hidden lake.

I’m taking about Convict Lake, the 170-acre gem of a destination just off Highway 395 in California. It’s only about 10 miles from downtown Mammoth Lakes.

With glass-like water and epic views of Mount Morrison, this alpine oasis is a true respite. It doesn’t draw the sizable crowds that gather at more northern destinations such as Devils Postpile National Monument and the drivable loop around June Lake. Instead, you can mosey up to the marina at your leisure to rent a 20-foot, Bimini-topped pontoon. (Pro tip: Reserve ahead from Convict Lake Resort; bookings open April 30.) Of course, there are also kayaks and paddle boards up for grabs—unless you bring your own. Then, it’s off to the races with a cooler full of snacks and an iPhone full of playlists to keep the party going throughout the afternoon.

Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, California
Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, California

Mammoth Lakes Tourism/Josh Wray

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As magical as it is to throw down anchor and just take in the awe-inspiring views, Convict Lake also has a history to match. Wondering why this spot is so uniquely named? “In the fall of 1871, a posse trapped a group of escaped convicts from Carson City, Nevada, at the lake, then known as Monte Diablo,” according to the folks at the Mono County Economic Development, Tourism and Film Commission. “A shootout ensued and two locals, Robert Morrison and Mono Jim, were killed. Most of the inmates were eventually caught and put to frontier justice. The large peaks above the lake were renamed after the fallen posse members and the lake itself became known as Convict.”

One of the coolest parts of Convict Lake is the fact that it’s surrounded by a hiking trail where you might also run into groups on horseback. There’s nothing like a leisurely nature walk around the perimeter to get your legs moving and wave to folks on the water in their kayaks and pontoons.

Fall foliage at Convict Lake
Convict Lake is the perfect jumping off point for exploring Mammoth’s other lakes.

Thomas J. Story

It’s also the perfect jumping-off point for exploring everything Mammoth Lakes has to offer, from stunning geological phenomenons to some of the best beer in the mountains. So, what are you waiting for? Time to get out there! Here’s the low-down on the lake where swimming, boating, and the like is a must:

Convict Lake 101

Where to Stay

Convict Lake Resort offers old-school cabins and lodges near the water. If you’re down to camp, book a site next to the lake through Inyo National Forest. I’m not above the local Motel 6 Mammoth Lakes, because it’s dog-friendly and cheap. You can also easily find an alpine-style condo or Airbnb.

Where to Eat

You must stop for cinnamon pull-apart bread (or a loaf of sheepherder bread) at the legendary Schat’s Bakery right on Main Street. Or cross the street to grab a coffee and breakfast burrito to-go from Stellar Brew & Natural Cafe.

Where to Drink

We get burgers and beers from Mammoth Brewing Company, which boasts a quaint outdoor patio and plenty of hops. Try the Golden Trout Kölsch.

Where to Play

Convict Lake amid mountains
Mammoth Lakes

Thomas J. Story

Reserve a pontoon, kayak, and more from Convict Lake Resort; bookings open April 30. In the greater Mammoth Lakes area, head up Mammoth mountain and hop on a shuttle to see the geological wonder of Devils Postpile National Monument. Hike a few miles further and you can take in the beauty of Rainbow Falls. Alternatively, drive the June Lake Loop to see some other pretty cool lakes.

How to Get There

United Airlines recently started offering daily flights to Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop from Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.