Fear not to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. - John Muir
I went into the mountains over the 4th of July weekend and came out a different person. Tom, Bailey, and I set out on an epic three day backpacking trip that I would have loved to have turned into a summer long event. I saw some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes I have ever seen and was humbled by their sheer enormity. Here's the story of our amazing weekend.
Every. Single. Time. we go to Mammoth Lakes I want to stay forever. There's something incredibly special about that small mountain town that calls me back when we leave and there's something about living at 7000+ feet of elevation that clears the lungs and spirit, and refreshes the soul.
Our journey started in Mammoth Lakes at Convict Lake. We've hiked the loop around Convict Lake many, many times. We always make sure we do it at least once every time we come to Mammoth - even in the winter when we have to turn back halfway through because of snow and ice. Its our tradition and we have to do it every time. So when we found out that there was a trail that led along Convict Creek up between two mountains to several other lakes, we knew we had to continue our journey on up.
The Convict Creek Trail is in the John Muir Wilderness and requires an overnight permit if you plan on pitching your tent and spending the night on the trail. Many people come for the day hike up 6.5 miles to Mildred Lake and return the same day. If you are planning an overnight hike you can reserve your permit here at Recreation.gov and then can pick it up at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center in town. Only a certain amount of permits are available at a time, so be sure to make your reservation in advance. We booked for the 4th of July weekend six months in advance.
Campfires are not allowed once you reach Mildred Lake and any lake above it, but camp stoves are allowed for cooking. You will need to obtain a FREE camp stove permit. You can get a California Campfire Permit here for free and its good for the entire state.
Elevation Gain: 75 feet
Elevation Loss: 59 feet
Moving Time: 28:15
I used my Garmin ForeRunner to track our hike and while I had satellite reception most of the time, sometimes we'd stop for a break and my mileage would jump a few tenths to catch up. I'm including our stats per mile on our hike up, and while they seem mostly accurate take them with a grain of salt and perhaps use them as a general estimate.
Starting the hike at the boat landing, we headed out on the right side of the lake and the first mile led us to the entrance of the John Muir Wilderness. We spent the first mile enjoying the beautiful lake and adjusting to our new packs. After hiking Granite Chief and The Five Lakes Trail we were hooked on backpacking and decided to invest in new packs. While the packs are GREAT, it did take a bit to get used to them - so we spent the first mile adjusting the straps and tension. This first mile of the hike is also the flattest part of the entire 6.5 miles.
Once we cleared the lake we were greeted by this beautiful sign leading us in to the John Muir Wilderness and to mile two. It felt like a welcoming home.
Elevation Gain: 479 feet
Elevation Loss: 3 feet
Moving Time: 36:26
We continued on and started our slow ascent up. We'd cover 2000+ feet of elevation gain over the next four miles and continued from open mountain desert to quaking aspen groves and out into the valley between two mountains. We were in great spirits starting out and getting excited for what we were about to see.
Tom and I both had mixed communications about how long the hike would be. Some sources said four miles, some said seven, and we really weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into. For some reason the thought that the trail was only four miles stuck in my head and wouldn't leave me. Was I in for a surprise later!
We continued in the sunshine and up and over Convict Lake. It was the first time we had ever seen it from above.
Elevation Gain: 285 feet
Elevation Loss: 30 feet
Moving Time: 23:48
After hiking over rocky trails in the sun, we entered into a smaller quaking aspen grove.
We stopped for a water break and were finally level with the creek we had been slowly getting close to over the past three miles. This creek leads right into Convict Lake and we had no idea we'd be meeting the source of it a few hours later at the top of the hike at Mildred Lake. Tom used our awesome water purifier to pump fresh creek water and Bailey had a bit of a rest and cool down in the water.
Elevation Gain: 92 feet
Elevation Loss: 13 feet
Moving Time: 14:01
We continued on, resting a bit in some new found shade, and joyous that the rocky trail turned into a dirt path surrounded by trees. We had been hiking on large chunks of granite that sometimes were loose, and just being on hard packed dirt again made this next section of the hike more enjoyable as the loads in our packs started to feel a bit heavier than when we started.
We met a few people on the trail coming down from the lakes and since I thought the hike was only going to be four miles we asked them how much further to the top and were a bit taken aback when they said we were maybe halfway.
"Are we close?" I asked.
"Um, well, not really. Probably a good ways to go still."
Our faces fell.
"But the view is totally worth it."
I started feeling a tinge of crankiness. How good can this view be? But we put on our happy faces, remembered, we WANTED to do this, and kept going.
Then, it got hard.
Elevation Gain: 469 feet
Elevation Loss: 7 feet
Moving Time: 27:23
The one consistent thing I read about the trail was how there was a washed out bridge and creek crossing at one point. I had thought that this was early on in the hike and since we'd been hiking for almost three and a half hours at this point I figured it was the dried out section in the beginning. Oh, was I wrong. We turned a corner and there it was, the creek had opened up and met another water flowage from its neighboring mountain. We had two creek crossings. And by creek I don't mean a hop over to the other side. I mean a good ten foot crossing with strong currents and slippery rocks.
The creek crossing difficulty does depend on the season - several other hikers we passed on our way down a few days later asked us how the crossing was. Obviously they had way more experience at this than we had (since we didn't even think to ask any hikers we passed on our way up) and we weren't sure how to respond. I fell in, twice, but apparently that wasn't the response they were looking for.
So, I didn't fall in head over heels. Tom and Bailey went together, Bailey on his harness and Tom keeping him on the leash so he could pull him up and over if he got stuck (he didn't, he's a champ). Then I went. I so desperately wanted to keep my feet dry, and as soon as I realized how desperate I wanted to do that, my boot slipped off a rock and into the creek my foot went. I was about shin high in the strong current and stood there a moment figuring how I'd get out. Well, once I was wet it actually was easier to just plow through than try and tip toe rock to rock to stay dry.
Then the trail was gone. This was absolutely the most difficult part of the hike.
We were surrounded by loose granite and the only way to get back to the trail was to climb up and over these super steep and loose rocks. By this time my grumpiness and exhaustion and was starting to kick in, and now I also had wet boots. I yelled to Tom (over the loud crash of the water flowing by),
"WHERE ARE WE GOING?!!"
"TO THE LAKE!" he responds.
Duh. "BUT WHERE ARE WE GOING?!!!" I couldn't see the trail or make out which direction it was going in. And I did NOT want to start double backing.
"TO THE LAKE!" he responded again.
"BUT WHERE IS THE DAMN TRAIL?!"
Round and round we went until we saw someone coming down from where the trail was and we did our best to mountaineer back up to it. Then I lost it. I caught up to Tom who was waiting for me and I threw down my pack and sat on a rock and said, "I can't do this anymore!"
Patience was his name. "Ok. Do you want a Clif bar?"
"Ok. Do you want to go back?"
"We can't go back! Its going to be dark soon!" (It also was the third of July and all accommodations - camping, hotels, motels - had been sold out months before.)
"Ok. Well, should we return our packs to REI when we're home?"
"Ok. Here, eat this Clif bar."
And that is when I earned my trail name Hangry, aka, Hank for short.
Elevation Gain: 515 feet
Elevation Loss: 0 feet
Moving Time: 33:11
A few more people passed us on the trail while I was taking my Hangry break. I mustered up all the energy I could, put my pack back on, and continued on. Again, the trail was winding tightly to the edge of a steep cliff of loose rocks and up we went. We soon passed another couple hiking down and asked them how much further. She said 20 minutes, he said, oh no, more like 45. So we grinned and bared it and kept on hiking.
At this point I was trying to focus on everything positive I could think of. We were almost there. Not much further. The trail was slowly changing back from loose granite to dirt again and just when I thought I needed to stop and take a break I saw the first wooden sign since entering the John Muir Wilderness.
"A sign! Tom, a sign! What does it say?!" I was desperate for it to say, welcome to Mildred Lake! But all it said was, "No Campfires From This Point On."
The ranger who gave us our permit at the Mammoth Welcome Center did say that we'd be camping at just past the allowed campfire area, so we HAD to be close.
Suddenly, the rocks were gone and we hiked out onto a large flat dirt area with trees and bushes - the first we'd seen in a while. Tom started to spot some make shift campsites, also the first we'd seen on the hike, so we started to get a good feeling. Then we hiked up and over one more hill and there it was.
WE MADE IT!
We turned back and set out for the first campsite we saw, just back down the hill and joyfully took our packs off for the last time that day. We set up camp as quickly as we could and settled Bailey in for a good night's sleep after he ate and then made dinner and swatted at mosquitos. It was incredible.
Since we couldn't have fires where we were, we've invested in a few tent lights that made staying up in the dark hours playing cards super enjoyable. Although, I don't think we made it past 10pm that night.
Mildred Lake to Lake Dorothy
The next day was overcast and a thunderstorm was threatening in the distance, but it didn't keep us from day hiking up to Dorothy Lake. The trail continued around Mildred Lake and started up the side of the mountain.
It didn't matter that we were to climb another 750 feet up to Lake Dorothy because the views were continued motivation to keep going. That and the fact that we were finally hiking without our large packs and we both felt about 100 pounds lighter! (I'm exaggerating - our packs did not come close to weighting 100 pounds. Read my Backpacking Gear post and see what we took with us.)
Once we reached Lake Dorothy we were astonished at the lack of people. We were passed by several groups on the hike up the day before and only saw one other day hiker as we were setting up camp that night. Where did all the people go? For a busy 4th of July weekend it felt like we were the only ones in the wilderness.
The trail to Lake Dorothy continues on to more wilderness and amazing lakes.
After more photo shoots the storm clouds started rumbling louder in the distance and we figured we should hike back down to Mildred Lake before the sky opened. As it happened, the rain started lightly falling at that moment, and the wind picked up something fierce as we came down around Mildred Lake. We made it back to the tent in time for a steady rain for the next hour. Tom and I started playing cards while Bailey napped, and then I thought that would be a good idea too so I took a little siesta to the rumbling thunder and pattering of rain on our tent.
We spent the rest of the day lounging around camp, filtering water from the awesome creek nearby, and eating. Another set of storm clouds loomed on the horizon and as we waited for the rain to start, magic hour happened and we climbed back up to Mildred Lake to get an amazing series of photos.
It was an amazing day.
We woke up early the next morning with the sun and birds and started packing up camp around 7am. It took us an hour to make coffee, breakfast, and repack our packs before heading back down the mountain. We were definitely sad to be leaving this incredibly beautiful place and started wondering if our desk jobs were really worth it compared to these magnificent vistas. Thinking about going back to the city and traffic and noise and rude people and pollution started bringing me down, but I quickly pushed those thoughts aside to focus on the present beauty around me.
The hike down was just as gorgeous as the way up. The sun was rising over the mountains and we hit large pockets of shade while the sun shone upon the top of the peaks. We were also happy to be tackling the hardest part of the hike first while we were fresh. We slid down several areas as the granite rocks loosened beneath our feet, but Bailey didn't seem to have any problems. His trail name for this weekend was Rockstar because he kept up with us and stayed close on the trail. He even carried his collapsable bowl, warm coat, harness, and leash on the way down (and seemed to love it!).
Then, it suddenly was time for the creek crossing again. I was bound and determined not to get wet feet for the remaining four plus miles on the way down. I really didn't want to hike all that way with wet feet.
Tom and Bailey went in first. Literally. They both slipped off some rocks and got soaked. They made it out just fine, but were wet to the knees (Bailey to his chest). I followed and immediately slipped in. So much for dry feet! I managed to whack my knee on a pointy rock on they way down and later realized the damage as I bled through my pants leg. Nothing major, just good scars from the trail.
We continued on down at what felt like a much quicker pace, but we kept looking over our shoulders to watch the mountain we had been so close to over the past few days get smaller and smaller.
We passed several more people day hiking on the way up. Everyone was incredibly friendly and stopped to chat for a few minutes. We learned of some other great trails to try in the area whenever we can get back for an extended weekend.
The hike up took five and half hours with all our breaks, and we booked it down in three hours and fifteen minutes. I was a little sad to actually come through the canyons and out into the open to see Convict Lake again. As we passed out of the John Muir Wilderness I gave the sign a little tap in hopes to return sooner than later.
Convict Lake was filling up with Sunday visitors and people were out enjoying their SUPs, kayaks, and pontoon boats. We passed several people on the trail and we felt a little special, as if we knew about this amazing place just a few hours away, a secret to adventurers only.
Convict Creek Trail is a must for anyone who needs a bit of nature to revitalize their soul. Its hard, tiring, and can be tricky at times, but the hard work does pay off in the end, the soul heals and the world changes before your eyes. All thanks to a few grand mountains.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. - John Muir