Exploring Mammoth: Convict Lake Overlook — some dirt road fun!

Date Visited: August 4, 2011
Check current conditions: Inyo National Forest (760) 873-2400
  • Hours: Safest between dawn to dusk.
  • Fees: None.
  • Road Type: Dirt road, requiring good tires and good clearance vehicle.
  • Distance: 8.2 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,260 feet
  • Location: Convict Lake
  • Nearest City: Mammoth Lakes, CA
  • Parking: Free (side of dirt road)
  • Kid-Friendly: Yes
  • Dog-Friendly: Yes (depends on your dog)

On our second full day in Mammoth this year, we decided to head out to Convict Lake.  We had reserved some canoes to paddle around the lake later (but winds forced us into a motor boat–adventure to be posted soon), but first we wanted to take a dirt road up to an overlook we had read about previously on the Convict Lake website and Trails.Com.  I don’t have a 4 wheel drive vehicle, but my 2WD Nissan Xterra has decent clearance and good tires, so I can usually get just about anywhere that isn’t specifically listed as a 4WD only road.  The kids love riding on dirt roads and I love driving on dirt roads, so we set out on our adventure.

Unfortunately, the very detailed mile by mile description found at Trails.com did not match up to the trail very well for us, which caused us to try two different routes twice each before figuring out which way we were supposed to actually go, but I’ll start from the beginning…

Mount Morrison Cemetery--stay on the road to the left.

Coming from our awesome dog-friendly condo at Mammoth Lakes, we headed back towards 395.  About 6 miles southeast on 395, just past the official Convict Lake turnoff on the right and the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport and Hot Creek Fish Hatchery turnoff on the right (site of the Hot Creek Geological Site), you will come to Mount Morrison Road on the right, which you will want to turn onto.  The road makes an immediate hard right and then a left, which brings you to the Mount Morrison Cemetery (a fairly new cemetery, without any historical significance we know of).

No snowmobiling today, but I'm sure this is handy in the winter. Turn left on the road under the power lines.

The pavement ends, but keep going straight until you come to a “T” intersection under the power lines, and in front of a sign that tells you about all the exciting snowmobile opportunities that apparently exist in the winter.  Turn left.

Heading up the wrong narrow road the first time.

According to our odometer, we were supposed to turn on the first dirt road to the right, a narrow path which we followed for about a half mile, taking a left turn that quickly became a dead end that was tricky to get out of, and then coming to a really steep, rutted section that didn’t look like something we were supposed to take before we decided we’d gone the wrong way.  We returned to the main road, and proceeded on to the next right turn dirt road.  There was one rather steep, rocky spot we had to go down to get there, but I was confident that if I maintained a decent speed in a low gear, I could get back up it pretty easily, even without a 4WD vehicle.

Heading up the correct dirt road the first time--before we thought we were on the wrong road again and turned back.

This road looked much more passable, and we followed it about a half mile before it came to an intersection where it appeared we were supposed to head straight up the mountain on a steep, sketchy looking path that didn’t go anywhere we wanted to go, so we turned back again, deciding to try the first route again.

Going up the narrow, wrong road again. It came to an abrupt end on that ridge ahead, and we turned around yet again!

This time we went all the way up the steep section, figuring it would get us where we wanted to go, but immediately thereafter, the trail came to a dead end!  Colleen and I got out, and looked back down on the other trail we had taken.  From this vantage point, we could see the dirt road, and that we had turned around just before a 4-way intersection, and that if we had just turned right rather than going straight ahead as it appeared we were headed, we would have gotten where we wanted to go!

Back on the right road again. This time, for good.

So we went back down the wrong track, and then turned right again to go back up the right road.  This time we headed straight to the 4-way intersection, and turned right, at about the 3 mile mark from 395, and the 2 mile mark from the main dirt road.  From there, you will quickly come to another Y-intersection, next to a water tank.  Stay right, and continue up the increasingly narrow, increasingly bad dirt road.  We came to another steep and rutted section, which I stopped to look at, and even got out to look to see if it got any better, or if I should stop there.  It looked okay, and quickly leveled out in the lookout area, so I decided to go for it.

Trying to get up that last, steep stretch before the overlook. I was ultimately unsuccessful, and parked just short of the top.

Unfortunately, starting where I was starting, I had no momentum whatsoever, and quickly began spinning my wheels, causing the smell of burning rubber and a sense of panic amongst the family in the truck, so I stopped and just put it in park, deciding we’d walk the last 50 yards or so.  I’m quite certain if I’d had a good head of steam (or had a 4WD), that I’d have made it all the way to the top, but the walk was easy, and even if we’d chickened out a little lower down that last hill after the Y at the water tank, the final walk would have been easy for any family to make.

Had I gone a little faster, or if I had a 4WD, I would have made it to this final stretch of level road that heads to the overlook.

If you make it to the top, there is an easy turnaround here. The trails to the edge and the overlook are to the right of the picture.

If we’d gone the right way the first time, it would have been a relatively easy (until the very last stretch) 4 mile, one way ride to the overlook, which was well worth it.  With the three false starts we took, it seemed like it was a lot more work than it should have been for the view we actually got, but fortunately, the kids saw it the way I did, and thought the getting lost and sketchy dirt roads were all part of the fun, so we actually still thought it was a trip worth taking.

View to the southwest end of the lake, where the creeks and boardwalk are located. This is the far end of the lake from the marina. BTW, that is not snow on the mountain in the background, just white rock.

Middle of the lake, including the picnic and parking area on the south side of the lake.

Northeast end of the lake, and the marina.

The views were great, and several different angles on the lake were possible as we walked along the little trails on the ridge over the lake.  We were right above the picnic and parking areas on the southeast side of the lake, and the mountains towering above the lake were great.  It was clear that some folks had camped at this overlook in the past, and there was a fire ring there, which may or may not have been legal.  Having reached our objective, and wanting to get on the lake itself, we headed on back to the truck.

Heading back down the hill towards 395.

View of Lake Crowley from the road on the way back.

I (with my wife guiding outside the vehicle) managed to complete a tight, backwards, three point turnaround on the narrow, steep dirt road we’d stopped on, and the way out (which is reflected in the map, without errors) was very easy and very quick.  We even passed a couple of real live cowboys and their real live cowdog herding their cattle down the same dirt road we were coming back on, which was pretty cool.

Mix of modern and old west, as a couple of real cowboys herd cattle with the snow-capped sierras in the background, and the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport in the middle.

So in the end, if you have a decent vehicle with decent clearance and decent tires, and you follow our directions, rather than the Trails.com directions, it is totally make-able and totally worth it.  If you have a passenger car and were thinking of just winging it–don’t!

NOTE:  I realized later after looking at my DeLorme Maps program (which I hadn’t downloaded ahead of time) and Google Earth, and even Google Maps, that there was yet another road option to the right just past the one we took (the third right turn option overall).  I don’t know if it would have been any better, but it is more clearly marked on existing maps, so may be worth trying, but the route we ended up using was perfectly passable with a decent vehicle, and the two toughest spots would have to be encountered on the alternate route as well.

View Convict Lake Overlook in a larger map


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