Cathedral Lakes Trail

Why is this trail not listed on the official day hikes at Yosemite?

You might be scratching your head and wondering, why isn’t this part of the regular hikes at Yosemite? Well, I would be wrong if I told you that several trails aren’t listed. The reason is very simple. These trails aren’t the E-ticket experiences that most people want to experience when going to Yosemite. It sounds kind of unfair, but in fact is what every tourist will no doubt want to see.

You might not know anything about Yosemite as a novice and only hear about the big iconic sights. But there are scores of trails that go further into Yosemite’s back-country that serious hikers are hungry to conquer. It all starts with a car trip to the other side of Tuolumne Meadows. This is likely where you’ll come across a portion of the John Muir Trail. To get to the trailhead of the Cathedral Lakes Trail you need to take Tioga road.

Where does the Cathedral Lakes trail start?

Tioga Road will take you through Yosemite Valley and leads you upward into the back of the valley. This is the same road you can drive up to Tioga Pass. Now, when you get to the Cathedral Lakes parking area, you find that this trail is fairly rocky. It’s not a bike trail by all means so you’ll need very good hiking shoes or boots. It’s also a rugged trail that requires plenty of hiking supplies. You’ll want to be prepared for this kind of hike.

The parking lot is right before the Budd Creek and less than a mile from the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. You can take a shuttle bus from the valley for a nominal fee. Though, I’ve heard this is free if you’re taking the Cathedral Lakes hikes.

How long the hike is?

The length of this hike all depends on your ability to walk along this rocky trail. For very athletic hikers, they can complete this trail in three hours. Others who are taking their time enjoying the sights will take 4-6 hours. The length of the trail takes a round trip of 7 miles. Now here is an interesting part of this trail. The first part of the trail is the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. But then you encounter the John Muir trail that forks off. To the left, this trail continues to Tuolumne Meadows.

You’ll need to continue straight on the John Muir trail that travels Southwest back towards Yosemite Valley. Along this trail, this allows you to see the Cathedral lakes and the incredible peaks. Aside from the John Muir trail, it ultimately would lead right back to valley campgrounds including Upper Pines and the Backpacker’s camp.

How difficult the hike is?

Something they don’t tell you is the bug problem. In the spring and throughout the summer, the abundance of water brings out lots of different bugs. Mostly mosquitoes and that can make bites almost predictable. You’ll want to bring bug spray that wards them off. As far as the level of trails goes, this trail is rated at being moderate. It’s an elevated climb upward that spans nearly 1000 feet.

A great mosquito spray like this:

Since you’re already at an 8,500-foot elevation, the air will be much thinner. It’s not enough to get dizzy but for some, it can be cause for lightheadedness. This is one of the more popular trails outside the Yosemite Valley. You should get to this trail before 10am to get the best daylight views. Being that this can be a 6-hour round trip, it can take longer. If you take side trails up to the Cathedral Lakes you need to be prepared to camp outdoors.

You can always do with good trekking poles like these:

What to expect along the trail?

For the first part of the trail, you make your way through thick woods and steep trails. These trails can be rocky so you have to be careful of your footing in some spots. It’s not like climbing dangerous terrain, but you could get a twisted ankle if you’re not careful. There’s lots of shade and trees, so the initial climb upward is all part of the adventure. After about a mile or so you finally emerge from the forest and get to see the first big highlight.

This is where you get a good glimpse of Cathedral Peak. Because of the angle, it looks a lot like one of the many domes throughout Yosemite. It only starts to look more iconic after you trek along the trail. This trail is flat for about a mile but then quickly climbs again for the second steady grade. This rises 415 feet and is less than 1-mile, but isn’t as bad as the first part of the trail.

Once you’ve elevated past this incline, you begin to see the detail along to top of Cathedral Peak. This is one of the sights that is said to look like Cathedral spires of an ancient church. It’s one of the amazing geological highlights that make this trail worthwhile. When you reach nearly 3 miles of this trail, you have reached the end of the trail. You can head back to the trailhead at this point, or continue on the Lake Trail to see more sights.

You may also expect to see many types of birds and wildlife such as deer. Don’t feed these animals as they don’t eat the same food as we do. If you are lucky you won’t encounter any bears, which are known to roam close to the camping spots up toward the two lakes at the top.

Are there campsites along this trail?

While you’ve made it this far on the trail to see Cathedral Peak, some adventurous hikers like going even further. The Lake Trail takes you to the backside of Cathedral Peak and two of the lakes behind it. The first part of this trail takes you half a mile up the trail to lower Cathedral Lake. This trail is marked and takes you directly off the John Muir trail to this lake. The upper lake can be visited by continuing up the Muir trail.

Lower cathedral lake

This is the larger of the lakes that you’ll visit while on the John Muir Trail. This trail takes you off the path directly to the lake called the Lake Trail. You can set-up a tent in this spot but you will need a permit from Yosemite to camp here. This is very primitive, so there is no campground areas, fire circles, food lockers at all. If you can stand the cold at night, in summer; then you are welcome to camp there.

At this elevation, the temperature is expected to drop considerably depending on the time of year. If you plan to do any kind of camping at this lake, bring warm clothing as a precaution. At a level between 9,300 and 9,600 feet, these two lakes can experience high winds and weather changes in a couple of hours. You want to be extra cautious if the weather is looking rainy or cloudy.

Upper Cathedral Lake

This lake is reached by staying on the John Muir trail a bit longer. As the elevation climbs you will find this tinier lake. This offers a different perspective of Cathedral Peak more than the Lower Lake does. Once again, you can camp at this location if you have a permit to do so. Much like getting a permit to climb Half Dome, you must also have the Little Yosemite campground permit. It’s essentially a wilderness permit.

While this lake sounds like it would be larger, it’s not as big as you would expect it to be. This is because the elevation doesn’t allow for this lake to be bigger. In the winter months, this lake is often frozen over and will be larger in the spring. There are 4 smaller ponds nearby that often join to the rest of this lake.

Summing-up the Cathedral Lake Trail

Like anything else in Yosemite that you might encounter, don’t forget that wildlife is ever-present. Contact with deer and bears will be a possibility along the paths that you travel. Since these are part of the back-country of Yosemite, you have to expect that contact with park rangers is limited. This is why you need to be more aware of your surroundings than usual and be cautious around wildlife.

As far as hiking is concerned, you need to bring essential items such as plenty of drinking water.

Easy-to-carry snacks that give you energy are also a good idea, especially if they fit in a backpack. Among the other essentials should include a multi-channel walkie-talkie and a compact first-aid kit. If you aren’t careful, you can expect plenty of cuts and scrapes if you lose your balance.

By far the most important part of hikes like this in Yosemite is being physically fit and having the right kind of clothing. Bring extra clothes just in case since the elevation of the Cathedral Lakes Yosemite trail can change in temperature very easily. If other returning hikers on the trail mention anything to you about possible dangers- listen to their advice. A bear in the area may linger around if they are hungry. You don’t want trouble from them.

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