Cathedral Lakes Trail is a 8.7 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Yosemite National Park, California that features a lake and is rated as moderate. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible from March until October. Horses are also able to use this trail.
The trail is fairly steep, rising 1,000 feet in about 3.5 miles. The trail is also located at high elevation, so the air is thinner, possibly causing those that are not acclimated to the elevation to tire faster, and fatigue. The view upon arrival is worth ever bit of work it takes to get there. Cathedral Peak rises beyond a pristine alpine lake. Along side of the lake a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers adds color to this amazing landscape. It is truly paradise. But it is essential to register early if you plan to stay overnight. The campgrounds fill up fast.
We started a late Friday afternoon backpacking trip with this trail. It was a great trail to just get into the backcountry on. The hike up to the lower lake was fairly strenuous at first requiring a lot of strength going uphill for quite a ways... I think gaining roughly 1000 ft or so. It was dark once we got to the lake but the stars were bright as ever and the night sky looked gorgeous. We woke in the morning to an incredible view of Cathedral Peak with its reflection on top of the water. (Try and camp on the western side of the lake for an amazing sunrise and early morning view of Cathedral) We spent a little time at the lake fishing in the AM and also climbing around all the abundant surrounding granite. From here we back tracked to the intersection with the John Muir trail and headed towards Echo Lake but decided to go off trail and head upwards gaining another 850 feet or so to Echo Peak. Since we got a late start after enjoying our morning we decided to ditch our packs early and make it to the top of echo for the sunset. Scrambling up steep gravely hills we finally made the summit and watched the sun go down. It was absolutely incredible up there. Sitting on small pieces of rock high above our initial campsite at the lake we had never-ending views with faint glimpses of Yosemite Valley, Clouds Rest and Half Dome. We made our way back down to our pack at dusk and decided to set up camp just under Echo. We woke to a cool morning in the ravine and had our breakfast and coffee... From there we decided that we may as well get to the top of Cathedral so we packed our gear and started the short trek to the base. We dropped our packs around lunchtime and started our ascent. We made it just about to the top of Cathedral before I became a little weary of my strength and the clunkiness of my boots to make the rest of the climb up. A couple of us got maybe 75 ft from the top or so while we watched another buddy(who was a little more confident) make it all the way up. After hanging out and relaxing for a bit we headed down completely out of water and in need of a bite to eat. We determined heading to Budd Lake to refuel was probably for the better before walking the 5 miles out to the car. At Budd we took a little swim and refilled everyones water (filtering of course)... Then we took the trail that heads out of Budd and meets back up with the John Muir Trail out near Tioga Pass... The trail out was incredible. Winding through the lush forest following Budd Creek there were many opportunities to take in the scenery and snap a good photo. I really enjoyed my short time in Yosemite and would recommend this section of the park to anyone that wants to keep away from the crowds. Cathedral Lake was fairly busy but if you off shoot up to echo it becomes very private and actually feels like you are alone in the wilderness. I plan to come back and may continue in this section of the park but would like to go much further in...
This is a beautiful hike but it’s not without its difficulties and challenges.
First and foremost this trail has a lot of elevation gain and the first half of the trail starts out as a combination of uphill and steps, levels out for a bit, and then goes in to rocky switchbacks. It then levels out again for a while, and you then either have to uphill for a short while to get to the upper lake, or downhill to the lower lake.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult hike. I am overweight and out of shape, and guys who were obviously thru-hiking were even commenting that this is a difficult hike, so I didn’t feel TOO bad about it. It took my wife and I much longer than the rated times to complete this trail, I think it took us around 6.5 hours.
The scenery however is fantastic; there is something to see throughout the trail. The trail starts heavily wooded, along the way to the lakes you will find a nice stream with some good photo opportunities, and eventually the spot in the ground where the water bubbles out and created the beginning of the stream. Along the way you will also see some wonderful views of the Eichorn Pinnacle, Cathedral Peak, and of course the lake itself.
Because it had taken us so long we only went to Lower Cathedral Lake, so I cannot comment on the views of the upper lake. The Lower Lake however has a fantastic walk through a sub-alpine meadow before you get to the actual lake, and then you get to a huge rocky area along the shore of the lake, where you will see fantastic views of the clear blue water, as well as the mountains overlooking the lake.
There is also a lot of traffic on this trail, since it’s part of the John Muir Trail there were a lot of people on the trail who were on their way to Sunrise Camp, we saw people easily every 5-10 minutes the entire way, on the way out we saw a steady stream of people heading back out until fair late.
One downside is that since this trail goes to one of the High Sierra Camp’s is that they use pack horses to transport stuff back and forth, which means there is a TON of horse poop all along the trail. There was horse poop every couple hundred feet, so you have to dodge it the entire way. When the trail is level it’s not so bad, but when coming back down the rocky switchbacks it makes picking a route difficult because not only are you trying to find the safest way down, but you also have to dodge horse poop.
I really enjoyed this hike, despite the difficulties that it gave me. The views are some of the best I have seen on a trail and if you can manage to overcome the elevation gains, it’s well worth it.
Such a beautiful hike. I think I was smiling the entire time. We left from Tuolumne Meadows campground so added about five miles overall but it was so nice to come back straight to our campsite instead of having to drive anywhere.
The lakes are gorgeous and peaceful. There were a good number of hikers and equestrians at Lower Cathedral but for how big the lake is it seems everyone was pretty spaced out and it didn't feel crowded. Upper Cathedral Lake was really where we had the best time as we only saw two other hikers and they only stayed briefly.
At Upper, we had a nice little lunch and then had a quick swim (cold water feels great on a hot day but the wind was picking up). Total seclusion. Just the best time. Wildflowers everywhere in the meadows you cross to arrive here and snow still up on some bluffs in July.
Would do again and again and again. Great hike.
We started the hike from the sign on the road showing the trailhead to Cathedral Lakes. It was a little over 7 miles round trip and took 3 hours. The views of the surrounding area and alpine lakes were amazing. This is a popular trail, cars were parked all along the road. There were a few stream crossings and the trail was muddy in some parts.
This is a popular hike judging from the many cars at the trailhead alone. Get there early and find a nice space. The hike is not very hard. A few sections uphill but nothing major. There are many people coming and going because this is part of the JMT, so you will run into a lot of backpackers most likely. Cathedral lake, the lower one, sits beautifully under cathedral peak. The pass and the upper lake is a nice place to visit too. You can do it. This maybe a nice place to backpack and relax, and perhaps allow you to see numerous sites nearby.