Convict Creek Basin
Photo © Fred Weyman
In a range that contains some of the most recognizable mountain features in the world, Convict Creek Basin is one of the most beautiful and least known parts of the Sierra Nevada. It gets so little use (partly because its trails don’t interconnect with others in the range) that it is one of the few trailheads that don’t have daily quotas.
Convict Creek's unfortunate name originates from the days of the wild-wild West when a gang of desperadoes who had escaped from a Carson City, NV prison holed up in the canyon. The ensuing shootout with a posse resulted in the death of the lawmen’s leader, Robert Morrison (for whom the mountain on the east side of Convict Canyon was named). The convicts were either killed in the shootout, or captured and lynched on the trip back to jail.
It is Convict Creek’s unique geology that creates the colorful, surreal scenery that differs from the rest of the Sierra that is dominated by light colored granite. In this area the sedimentary and metamorphic rocks that once overlaid the entire Sierra Nevada range have not been eroded away to reveal the underlying granite that uplifted the range. During formation of the Sierra, magma rose from great depths and obliterated much of the sedimentary rock that it encountered. Just below the surface, the magma cooled and formed the granite typical of the range. However, heat and pressure deformed the immediate overlying sedimentary rocks into unimaginable shapes. Also of geologic interest are evidence of glacial activity including, terminal, lateral, and recessional moraines, glacial striations and polish, erratic boulders, and of course the numerous lakes.
The scenery (and the horse s***) starts right at the Convict Lake Trailhead with a view of the spectacular north face of Mount Morrison, “The Eiger of the Sierra,” towering more than 3,000 ft. above the lake. The first mile of the trail traverses the north side of Convict Lake, heading directly at the Sevehah Cliffs on Laurel Mountain. These cliffs were formed when flat sediments were tilted to vertical, and beyond, by rising magma. These dramatic cliffs have been featured as backdrops in a Star Trek movie and in TV advertisements for beer and cars.
At the end of Convict Lake there is less horse evidence as the trail climbs with a few switchbacks and enters Convict Canyon between Mt. Morrison and the Sevenhah Cliffs. For the next 5 miles the trail rises about 2,000 feet in the canyon that cuts through bizarrely twisted layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks colored red, orange, yellow, white, brown, and green. There is one stream crossing that can be difficult in early season when the stream is high. At Mildred Lake, just below tree line, the canyon opens into a basin of scenic glacial lakes including: Bright Dot, Dorothy, Genevieve, Edith, Mildred and Cloverleaf. Use trails and easy cross-country routes interconnect the lakes. The basin is surrounded by colorful peaks including the White Fang, Mt. Baldwin, Red Slate Mountain, and Bloody Mountain.
Hiking, backpacking, nature study, geology study, fishing and climbing.
While the Convict Creek Basin is accessible year-found, access on the main trail from Convict Lake is difficult when snow covered and in spring due to a difficult high-water stream crossing about 3 miles up the trail.