Revisiting Crowley Lake and a Hike Around Convict Lake

Bishop, CA

Crowley Lake is a reservoir on the Upper Owens River on the east side of US 395 between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.  The lake was created in 1941 by the building of a dam by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), as storage for the Los Angeles Aqueduct and for flood control.  On the east side of the lake are what is known as the Crowley Columns, strange columnar formations some of which reached heights of as much as 20 feet.

View of the Sierra’s from the dirt road leading to the columns

When we were here in 2015, California was in the middle of a severe drought.  We drove out to the area of the columns with friends Dave and Sue (Beluga’s Excellent Adventures) to check them out.  Since that visit, California has received a great deal of snow over the past two winters and the lakes are back up to capacity.  So we decided to drive back out to the same spot and see what the high water level looks like by the columns.  We found the difference to be quite striking.  Just a quick comparison of the two photos below show the differences.

2015 visit

2017 visit

During the first visit we could walk along the shoreline and explore inside the many caves and pillars.  But we couldn’t do that during this visit!

2015 visit

2017 visit

While the visit to the columns this year was nowhere near as interesting, we are glad the drought is over and the lakes in the area are back up to normal levels.

We drove back out to the highway and continued north for another few miles.  Across from the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport we turned west on Convict Lake Road.  It is a two mile drive to the end of the road at the east end of the lake.

Convict Lake Road

At an elevation of 7,850 feet Convict Lake sits in the Sherwin Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is known for its fishing and the dramatic mountains that surround it.

Convict Lake

The lake was named after an incident in 1871 where a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City.  A posse from the nearby town of Benton encountered the convicts near the head of what is now Convict Creek.  Posse member Robert Morrison, a Benton merchant and Wells Fargo Agent, was killed in the encounter.  A peak on the southeast side of the lake is named after him.

Mount Morrison

Driving just outside Bishop we came upon a white boulder with a plaque mounted on it.

The plaque marks the spot where the story of the escaped convicts came to an abrupt end.

After a long hike the day before at high elevation, we were looking for a trail with a bit less challenge.  A trail of just under three miles going around Convict was just what we were looking for.

Trailhead for the Convict Lake Loop Trail

Hiking out on the south side of the lake

At the far end of the lake a boardwalk bridge over Convict Creek is missing, creating a challenge to continue.  But two logs lying together across the water provided us with the opportunity to crab walk sideways across the water.

The nimble hiker demonstrates her skills

Looking back east from the far end of the lake

Looking back to the west as we hiked the north side of the lake

In addition to the incident with the convicts, the lake is also known for a more recent tragedy.  In 1990 it was the site of a major drowning.  Twelve teenagers and two counselors from a nearby camp were on a holiday outing at Convict Lake.  The group was warned that the ice was too thin to support their weight but failed to heed the warning.  At least four teenagers and both adults fell through the thin ice and into the water.  By the time the first rescuer arrived on the scene, only one teenager had been able to pull himself out of the water, but the other teenagers were no longer in sight, having apparently already drowned.  In all, three teenagers and four would-be rescuers drowned in the freezing water.  Another youth and a volunteer fire chief were rescued.

A plaque at the est end of the lake marks the tragedy

Plaque recognizing a Forest Service firefighter who drowned trying to save the boys

That ends our brief revisit to Bishop.  We’ll now continue south on US 395 to the little town of Lone Pine.  More on that later . . .


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18 Responses to Revisiting Crowley Lake and a Hike Around Convict Lake

  1. Sherry says:

    Glad you were there during the drought to really see the neat caves. WOW now that’s a speedy trial and swift justice. Still seems funny to spread their fame by calling it Convict Lake. Maybe the lake and not the mountain should have been named after Morrison. What a sad story about the drowning. But your crab walk is one bright spot in all the death at the lake.

  2. Susan Bank says:

    Thanks for the pictures of Crowley….the water level has really changed the landscape. I’m happy that the reservoir is filled, finally, but am also very glad we were able to experience the columns and caves on our first visit. Convict lake looks like Switzerland to me, so beautiful! I loved the picture of Pam the Crab.

  3. exploRVistas says:

    Great crabwalk, Pam!

    Too bad about those drownings. It’s scary how many times I’ve heard where the rescuers end up losing their lives.

  4. What a gorgeous spot to have such sad history! Loved the before and after column photos!

  5. LuAnn says:

    We did enjoy the Convict Lake hike during one of our visits but failed to check out those unusual columns. Thanks for taking me there!

  6. Ah, this brings back good memories! In a past life, before Hans, I camped at and fished the Owens River (upstream from Crowley) and also fished Convict Lake from a rental boat. Such a beautiful area!

  7. Jeff Pierce says:

    Looks like another perfect day, and you had the trail much to yourselves. Doesn’t get much better than that. Nice to see the lakes have filled up quite a bit, we need the water. I saw on the news it is already snowing in Mammoth, stay safe up there!

  8. Laurel says:

    It’s good to see the lake full, but it was also cool when you were able to explore the columns. I’m glad you showed us photos of the before and after. I think I went to the same hiking school as Pam… :-))

  9. pmbweaver says:

    WOW…that is a big difference.
    That nimble hiker has some great balance. I wonder if she ever thought of competing in barrel or log rolling? I think she would be good.
    Man, get away from the lake. It is bad luck. I wonder why those adults didn’t heed the warning. That is so sad.

  10. Jodee Gravel says:

    So cool that we got to see inside and around the columns – now I love seeing the lake so much healthier! Impressive log walk, bet you’re glad it was a loop hike :-))) That little lake has certainly had it’s share of drama. It’s still a beautiful gem in the mountains.

  11. Walter Pond says:

    Convict Lake is gorgeous and now on my Bucket List for sure. Places like this make me wish I could paint! Guess I’ll have to be satisfied with these lovely photographs. The snow capped mountains just makes it look so ethereal. Thank you for the tour. This place in the world really moved me. You really captured its essence!

  12. jacknbo says:

    That is another beautiful place we didn’t know about! It is now on our always-expanding list of places to go. Thanks for the wonderful pictures.

  13. Steve & Dianne Colibaba says:

    Looks like a great area to explore. Love the pictures. The Lone Pine area is one of our favourites. We stayed at Turtle Creek Campground…love Alabama Hills! Looking forward to your take on it.

  14. geogypsy2u says:

    Those columns are very cool but glad there’s more water in the lake now. Sad stories at Convict Lake. I too stayed at Tuttle Creek campground and liked it for visiting the Alabama Hills.

  15. Debbie L says:

    Oh how sad! Such a beautiful area, amazing Sierra Nevadas, so easy to see how the youth and counselors were too captivated by the scenery to use common sense or heed the warnings.

  16. teampullmyfinger says:

    what are the gps coodinates?

    • placestheygo says:

      We didn’t have coordinates. But if you put Crowley Lake Columns into Google maps, it takes you right to them and even shows the parking area. You can follow the map for the dirt roads in.

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