Convict/Walker/Mono Lakes

~Here’s How You Do It

Fellow adventurers, this particular write-up had us stymied. It came down to a decision to split these trips apart or combine them, so we’re hoping to find a happy medium and give each its moment in the spotlight via photos inserted between the write-ups.

The three places that are covered in this overview can be a multi destination trip or they can be single stops along the way as you drive  Route 395 north. This stretch of road leads to the east side of Yosemite as well as Lake Tahoe and Reno, as it meanders past the High Sierra of California. The entire area offers up some stellar camping, hiking, and backpacking. Add in fishing, kayaking, and winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding and the bases are covered. With finances in mind, we’ll focus on temperate weather travel that allows for comfortable camping. Opting for the tent can be either very cost friendly or if you want to get down and dirty, free. A side note: all three of these lakes are within an hour of Yosemite. However, this is only during the non-snowy months as the 120 (the main highway from the east side of Yosemite) is closed when precipitation renders it impassable.


Convict at sunrise in the fall
Convict at sunrise in the fall

While Convict Lake (40 minutes north of Bishop on Route 395) is not free, it is reasonable at $18 per night plus reservation fee, or, in the off-season, book on site with the camp host and sans the extra fee. Be aware that the place fills up quickly in peak summer months. Note that any view of the lake is pretty limited, but campsite #3 (while lacking a bit of privacy) sits on a slight bluff and affords a sliver of a lake view.  A fair amount of sites are shielded, offering some privacy so the trade off for no lake view is well worth the exchange for the wealth of Aspens that are lovely all seasons, but especially when they glow fire orange and yellow in the fall.

If campfire cooking is not your style, this campground may be your answer as the resort not only has a store that serves coffee but there also is an award winning restaurant open to campers, as well as those who opt for cabins rather than a tent. For casual hikers, this lake is a dream. A trail loops the small lake and is kid/dog friendly. Another possibility is to canoe Convict. Boat rentals are easy to secure, and, folks, if you want to fish but are no expert, they even have staff to line your pole and advise on bait. The lake is stocked with trout and contests are common throughout the summer. For a short stay or easy get-away experience, Convict makes the cut. Whether camping, cozying down in a cabin, eating in, out, around a fire, fishing, kayaking, or pontoon boat partying, this resort has it all.


Perfectly still

Perfectly still

So now let’s talk about free or as close to free as you can get to it. Walker Lake is a little known gorgeous freebie camping spot. That’s right, throw 4 people in a car, split the gas, bring the food from home, and you have yourself a vacation. Drive only 4 miles in on a dirt road that a Hyundai can, and did, handle. Traverse this preferably in daylight as our after dark foray made 4 miles feel like 10. You want to take the north (NOT south) June Lake loop turnoff and then turn right at your first chance. The sign will be for Parker Lake but a Walker Lake sign will follow. The campsites are located under a canopy of evergreens and if you are seeking some quiet, this is your place. Few people are aware of it, so most of the time it is host to only a handful of fishermen. The fishing is reputed to be pretty good, but the morning we tried, the result was a single trout that indeed was sublime seasoned with Cajun spices, but would’ve been better with another 10 or 12 beside it on the platter. While the fishing was not a success (and we’re sure it was just an off day), the campfire rings and picnic tables were as appreciated as the pit toilets, but take note that there is no running water, so bring it in.

The one thing to keep in mind on this spot is that the lake is not visible from the campsites and though the hike down (note the word “down”) to the lake is scenically fantastic, some find the hike back up not so much.

For those interested in a few hours boating, reasonably priced rentals are 15 minutes away at June Lake, as well as Grant Lake. The town of June Lake has a candy/ice cream store (Cathy’s Candy) that is equally friendly and delicious. We can vouch for the toffee–it will rock your world. This also brings to the equation the fact that June Lake, Grant Lake, and the gorgeous Mono Lake are all within minutes of each other and the town of Lee Vining is about a 20 minute drive from any of the three. If the fishing has you bleakly considering a single small trout for dinner, the Mono Market frequently has a 2 pack of the most incredible pork chops to ever honor a pig and they run about 5 bucks. Load those babies with some Slap Ya Mama seasoning, lay them on the grill and life will pause in the sacred moment you put the first bite in your mouth.


Sunset from Navy Beach
Sunset from Navy Beach

Come sundown or sunrise, drive 15 minutes and check out the 3 million year old Mono Lake ($3 per adult fee). Why sunrise or sunset? Because these two times are best for several reasons: your photos will be spectacular, but also, you miss out on the frequent high winds. Avoid afternoons if possible as they bring the strongest winds and by “strong”, we mean sometimes gale force and dangerous in the summer months, that’s a fact. And on the subject of facts, stop into the visitor center in Lee Vining to check out the story behind Mono Lake’s famous tufas and terrain. For the kayaking bunch, tours (Sat. and Sun.) are also available at approx. $25 per person (no kids under age 4). For those with little travelers, try the free, guided nature hikes, as the 4 and under crowd is welcome, but sadly alcohol is not…as a mom/survivor of four children, I am allowed those jokes.

One often overlooked nugget: if you are driving in to the main parking area for the tufas, immediately before is a turn off to the right (Navy Beach) and it is open to the public, however, do not leave the roadway as the powdery sand makes for a stressful digging the car out experience that unfortunately a certain person can vouch for. Drive to the end (there is a parking lot) and walk–don’t run gleefully down to the beach, paying no attention to where you left the vehicle. Bring a headlamp as locating said vehicle when it gets dark can be tricky, a certain person can vouch for that also. The photos at sunset are straight out of fantasyland, and away from the main area, you won’t be jockeying around 40 photographers with lens toting sherpas.

For you stargazers: if you want to camp near the Mono Lake area or even kayak to and camp on one of the islands, you can for free! Dispersed camping is allowed but permits are required, so check the ranger station, as certain times of the year restrictions apply due to protected nesting birds. And for the love of Smokey the Bear, DO NOT make a fire without a permit.

The ranger station and visitor center is located just north of Lee Vining on the east side of #395. The place was well staffed when we visited with knowledgeable rangers offering stellar advice. Campers, please fully “get” that rangers are the unsung heroes that can be found picking up trash from city slickers and rescuing those of us that remember the campfire percolator (cough, cough) but forget sunscreen and water. Give it up and offer them a hearty round of applause when you see them.


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