Hiking to Cathedral Lakes | Yosemite National Park
Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
The hike to Cathedral Lakes had been high on our Yosemite list for the last few years and it’s easy to see why. Two alpine lakes, in the high country of Yosemite, far away from the crowds of the Valley, make this an idyllic destination.
What had prevented us from making the trip up until this year had been the debate over whether to visit the lakes as a day-hike or an overnight backpacking trip. As we continue to work out the kinks of becoming backpacking people, we settled on a compromise. We would hike to Cathedral Lakes as day-trip, but would stay for sunset and then hike out in the dark.
Cathedral Lakes: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 8,548 ft.
Distance: 11.5 miles (with plenty of walking around the lakes)
Elevation Gain: 1,732 ft.
Hike Type: Out and back, day-hike
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Permit: None required for day hiking. You will need a permit to camp at the lakes.
Date Hiked: November 16, 2019
Getting to the Trailhead
To reach the trailhead for Cathedral Lakes, you will need to drive the Tioga Pass Road, also known as Highway 120. The pass is your gateway to an endless array of Yosemite hikes and backpacking trips that most visitors to Yosemite Valley will never step foot on.
One caveat of Tioga Pass is its seasonal access as the road is open once all of the snow has been cleared. Dates of opening and closing vary with each year’s snowfall, so it’s best to check the park website before planning a trip.
From the South Bay Area, the drive takes about four hours and covers slightly over 200 miles. The Cathedral Lakes trailhead is one of the more popular destinations in the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite, so you can expect crowds to frequent this area whenever the road is open. Still, it won’t be anything compared to the bus loads of people you see in the Valley, but don’t expect a ton of solitude during peak season.
Parking for the trail is easy to spot, just before you reach the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, a trail sign marks the start of the hike. Get there early if you visit during the summer as limited parking means you could end up adding additional distance to your hike, or having to take the park’s shuttle.
Hiking to Cathedral Lakes
While the hike to Cathedral Lakes isn’t especially difficult compared to some of the hikes in Yosemite, it’s mostly the elevation that will get you. Coming from sea level as we did for a day-hike, the trail to Cathedral Lakes begins at 8,500 feet. No matter how physically fit you are, that level of elevation can take it’s toll on your breathing. And as is often the case in the high country of Yosemite, the hike wastes no time in making you exert energy by hiking uphill.
I like to think of the hike to Cathedral Lakes as a bit of rolling hills. The first 0.7 miles is a steady uphill, covering 500 feet of elevation gain along the way. But after that, the trail is surprisingly flat for the next mile or so. Around 1.5 miles in, we caught the first glimpse of Yosemite’s famous granite, which is always a welcome sight. A portion of the next section of the trail actually starts to descend, meaning you’ll be hiking uphill on some of the return hike, never a favorite of ours.
We carried on this way until we reached the 2.3 where we began to climb out of the forest and into more sun exposure. At 3.25 miles in, we came to the junction for Lower Cathedral Lake, where we stayed to the right. If you’re planning on visiting Upper Cathedral Lake (as we did), know that you will have to hike back to this junction and continue on to reach it.
Lower Cathedral Lake
Just under three quarters of a mile later, we had reached the shores of Lower Cathedral Lake. A great expanse of granite is laid out in front of the lake, making it easy to stretch out and enjoy the views. Even with our visit being late in the season, there were still a fair amount of people and groups spread out at the lake. I can only imagine how busy this area would be in the peak of summer! While Julie took photos of Cathedral Peak (looking in the opposite direction of the lake), I used this opportunity to enjoy my PB&J and snap some photos on my iPhone.
Perhaps one of our favorite parts of Lower Cathedral Lake is how much better the views get as you walk around the lake. After our snack break, we followed along the shoreline, enjoying the different vantage points and views of Cathedral Peak. At the far end of the lake, there is an impressive granite dome that was reflecting perfectly in the still water.
Beyond the lake, and atop the granite, there is a beautiful view of Tenaya Lake, below in the distance. We loved having the opportunity to enjoy this part of the lake, mostly to ourselves, as only a handful of others had ventured beyond the initial lakeshore.
Upper Cathedral Lake
With just under an hour to sunset, we said goodbye to Lower Cathedral Lake and quickly made our way back to the junction. It’s about the same distance from the trail junction to Upper or Lower Cathedral Lakes, so we knew we could get there pretty quickly. There is an unmarked spur trail that leads you down to the lake, which we mistook for something else and ended up having to retrace our steps. By the time we reached the shoreline, we had made it with minutes to spare and Julie quickly got her camera set up for sunset.
We both looked around and marveled at how immensely beautiful the lake was, particularly with Cathedral Peak reflecting perfectly in its waters. Even better, none of the other day-hikers had made the same decision as us, so we had the place completely to ourselves!
If the backcountry solitude wasn’t enough, we were soon greeted by a pink hue that lit up the sky. It’s hard to imagine a better sight than what we were witness to. Once the sun had set and the pink disappeared, it was time to strap on our headlamps and head back down to the car.
Another great hike in Yosemite had come to an end, but we will be back again soon!
Check out these other awesome hikes in Yosemite
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