Laurel Lakes CA 4×4 trail, off roading Mammoth Lakes and the Inyo Mountains, and golden trout

This little gem of an off road trail is no secret, carvings in poplar trees downstream from Laurel Lakes for instance, in what is known as Laurel Creek, are dated from the 1930’s. Laurel Lakes was also a designated fish hatchery of some sort in the late 1950’s, as the old article below indicates. There is still a metal survey box with paperwork in it, that asks anglers to describe the type of fish that they caught.

The trail itself is about 4.5 miles long, beginning a couple of miles or so off of Hwy 395, see the dirt road junction at the highway, in the photo below. It’s a rough road, 4wd or a locked rear end, with low gears, is probably a minimum requirement, unless you are on an ATV. Long wheelbase vehicles, or vehicles with a poor turning radius, will be backing up multiple times in some of the switchbacks, particularly the first one that starts the descent down to the lake. That appears to be the point where a driver lost his life in 2015, you can still see the grill and a big sheet of glass from his vehicle at the scene:

Your author saw a couple of dozen vehicles make it all the way in to the lakes, over a two-day period, including an Arizona soccer mom driving an extended cab pickup, that had to do an 8-point turn at the top switchback. All of those vehicles took the main turn towards the lake, you can see that section of the road in the bottom of the photo that has the blue 4runner in it. The short section of road that peels off to the left in that pic is rather steep, but there are a couple of places to put up tents, just past where the 4runner is parked.

One of the last trucks to leave for the night was Toyota pickup that was loaded up with rocks. It took the driver over half an hour to get up the hill, with lots of spinning tire sounds. At one point his headlights were completely visible, the entire front end of the truck was hanging over the edge of the top switchback, as he attempted to back up repeatedly. They finally had to park the truck, and unload a bunch of rocks, in order to get out. Moral of the story? The road isn’t the only danger here, watch out for other drivers, who may or may not be DWI.

Once you survive the road, what about fishing for golden trout, the official California state freshwater fish? “Laurel Lakes, Mono County, were chemically treated[by California DFG? late 1950’s?] to eliminate all species which might hybridize with golden trout. These waters supply broodstock golden trout eggs for hatchery rearing and planting in high mountain lakes.”

It’s not clear what chemicals were used to treat the lakes back then, but can you imagine the uproar such a thing would cause in 2016? More recently, there are multiple references on the internet, from 1991 to 2014 at least, of Laurel Lakes being stocked with some kind of fish. However, none of the anglers that the author talked to on this 2016 trip were able to catch any fish at the lakes. Given that the upper part of the trail can be blocked by snow even into early July, where would this fish stocking take place? In Laurel Creek perhaps? Or by air, bypassing a closed road?

This story of Gov. Edmund G. Brown, and his participation in the attempt to introduce golden trout broodstock into Laurel Lakes in 1959, is interesting: “We were unsuccessful in our efforts in establishing the new Laurel Lakes broodstock. The inlet spring feeding the upper lake proved to be too cold for proper egg development, so the project was abandoned. But fishing there for golden trout remains great! A seven-pounder was taken there a couple of years later by a Bishop angler. This was indeed an unforgettable part of my career and happened more than half a century ago!”

Partial text, from 1991, San Bernardino County Sun newspaper: “TUESDAY. September. 10, 19M- KALEIDOSCOPE- MAMMOTH LAKES Most anglers have never seen the state fish, the golden trout because, “they generally are found at the end of long hikes’ into wilderness Country. But the lake that produces, perhaps the largest golden trout in California is accessible via a rugged four-wheel drive road near here. …In the past, Laurel Lakes has been a local secret. Anglers at Mammoth would huddle in a corner at Mammoth Sporting Goods, looking around to make sure no one was in earshot when they talked about this lake. If you could hear, the conversation would have sounded something like this: “They’ve been moving up on the little sandbar at the inlet of the upper lake in the evening after the sun drops off the water. Last night Tom got one…” ???…not plentiful in Lakes farther south in the Sierra, in an annual wilderness egg-taking operation. These eggs are then reared to fingerling size in the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery and then stocked in waters throughout the state, usually by air. Laurel Lakes, a few miles south of Mammoth at about 10,000 feet, has missed its stocking allotments in recent years because of disease and budget problems, which is one of the reasons why it currently has so few fish.

The voluntary creel surveys filled out by anglers who fished Laurel Lake in 1990 bear out both the lake of fish and the size of the few fish there, according to John Deinstadt, head of the DFG’s Wild Trout program in Sacramento. On 44 surveys, only six fish were reported caught, with three of those kept. Three of the trout were over 16 inches in length, and two over 18. The smallest trout was in the 10-inch class still about double the size of most goldens caught in other California waters. Deinstadt encouraged anglers to fill out these survey forms if they fish Laurel. The survey box is right where the road ends at the lake. Deinstadt said the data these surveys have provided throughout the state has been invaluable if not essential in helping the Department tune management plans for its Wild Trout waters. The data has proven so accurate that the DFG is expanding annually the number of survey boxes placed on waters. The data gathered at Laurel Lakes has convinced the DFG and local anglers that restrictive regulations that would reduce harvest are necessary to improve the Laurels and make them more productive of trophy golden trout. For information on Laurel Lakes and how you can help protect this resource, contact The Trout Fly in Mammoth Lakes at (619) 934-2517 or Jim Edmondson, Region Five manager for California Trout, Inc., at (818) 249-4460.

Chris Boone, hatchery manager at Hot Creek, said that Laurel Lakes will be planted with golden trout fingerlings from the air next week. But he said this will be the first stock in several years, and spawning success in the stream that leads into the upper lake has been nil; “I know several people from Bishop who’ve caught 18- and 19-inch goldens. The problem is that “they kept the fish,” said Boone. “The goldens are getting caught out.” Curtis Milliron, the Wild Trout biologist for Region 5 of the Fish and Game headquartered in Bishop, said the lake is incredibly rich, with a huge number of scuds, a freshwater crustacean. Feeding on this food supply is what grows the trout big. Milliron is more emphatic about how big: “We found a fish (during a survey last year) that was very close to five pounds” said Milliron. “There were several in the ???- to three-pound range. There’s just huge, monster fish in there, but there’s very few right now. If you do catch one, it’s going to be a monster.” Laurel Lakes are slated to receive plants of golden trout every other year in the current management plan, according to Milliron. Golden trout eggs are taken from fish at the Cottonwood…”

“Following are the creeks, streams and lakes scheduled to receive approximately 875,000 lbs. of CDFW trout in 2014… Mono County: …Laurel Lake, No. 1 and 2”

The big chunks of rock that cover the landscape at Laurel Lakes are also home to a number of American Pika mammals, which look like little rodents, but are actually members of the rabbit or hare family. These little guys make a bunch of noise squeaking at each other, and they tear off big chunks of grass to take back to their rocky dwellings. Some Pika species are extinct; they are a cold weather mammal, that doesn’t survive well at temps 70 degrees and warmer, so global warming has been a concern for this species. As the weather gets hotter, they are forced to move to higher altitudes. More on the pika here:

All photos taken with a Sony a7R and an Olympus 28/3.5 lens, usually at f/11. This lens has a wavy field curvature problem, but it’s difficult to see when the photos are downsized.

Dan Euritt

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