After my eight-day SEKI Loop trail, I headed north to Yosemite National Park for one last day hike. I chose the Cathedral Lakes trail – part of the John Muir Trail – because it combines alpine lakes, a magnificent peak and relative solitude.
Cathedral Lakes Trail
Start/end: Trailhead at Tioga Road, near Tuolumne Meadows Visitors Center
Distance: 10.2 miles (16,4 km)
Elevation gain/loss: 1,995 ft (608 m)
Highest point: Cathedral Pass, 9,685 ft (2.952 m)
Time: 4:20 hrs moving time; 4:50 hrs total time
Date: September 9, 2018
Getting to Yosemite and the the Trailhead
When I arrived at Yosemite National Park after a 5 hours drive from Grant Grove, Kings Canyon, I was struck by the massive amounts of visitors – and their cars! Having spent more than a week in the wilderness of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, it was hard to get used to these crowds.
Moreover, I totally miscalculated my chances of finding a camp site in the park. It was september, and with Labour Day a week behind me, I thought there would be at least some camp sites outside of the Valley. But even the most remote and bare-bone campgrounds like Porcupine Flat were totally packed.
I ended up in a motel in the nice little village of June Lake, one hour east of the park. So if you ever plan to hike in Yosemite: make sure to book your camp site months ahead.
Putting the disappointment of not finding a camp site site behind me, I took a relaxed zero-day at the beautiful June Lake. The next morning I got up very early (at 4 am), packed my stuff and drove back to Yosemite. The Cathedral Lakes trailhead is easy to find, a few minutes west of the Tuolumne Visitors center in East Yosemite on the Tioga Road. A row of cars was already parked along the road when I got there. I took out my bear canister with my leftover food and put it inside one of the many food lockers at the trailhead. And at 6 a.m., just before sunrise, I was on the trail again.
Distinctive trail blazes have been cut into the trees along the trail.
The Cathedral Lakes trail is not only a part of the famous John Muir Trail, it is also a very popular day hike. That is why I wanted to get here as early as I could – I like to meet some hikers on the trail, but I wanted to keep at least an illusion of solitude in these mountains.
The first part of the trail was quite easy, not too steep. A wooded terrain, still cold from the night. I noticed the trail was very worn out and dusty, revealing the huge amount of traffic it gets. For now, I still had the trail for myself.
Getting to a higher part of the trail, the trees thinned out a bit and I had the first good views of the Cathedral mountain range. The sun was shining on its eastern flanks, giving the massive granite a beautiful hue.
wardsAnd after long anticipation, there it finally was: the Cathedral Peak, with spires piercing the sky above. From this part of the trail the peak seemed so very thin and small, so fragile.
Halfway the trail I passed the metal sign with cut out letters indicating the side trail to the lower Cathedral Lakes, north of the trail. I decided to ignore this side trail for the moment. First I wanted to get to the pass, and maybe see the lower lake later on.
The trail continued upwards, but only the last part to Cathedral Pass was kind of steep. It required only a few switchbacks to get all the way up.
Then the pass – which was more like a flat meadow – came in sight. A seemingly endless range of yellow grass, dotted with fir trees. Very far away, the higher peaks of what must be – Clouds Rest maybe?
While I had my first break here and ate a simple breakfast of Snickers, dried fruit and water, I met a few solo hikers coming from the valley.
Tempted to hike further west to the valley, I decided to turn around and head back. Looking east again, I had the first view of the upper lake. The trail to the upper lake was being reconstructed and although I saw a few hikers attempting to get to the lake’s shores, I decided against that and hiked on the the lower lake.
Lower Cathedral Lake
Back at the metal sign, I took a left turn to the lower lake. The trail descended to bigger and bigger slabs of granite. Parts of the trail were indicated by lines of rocks, for even a million hiker boots would never leave a trace on the granite.
I had read that the last part of the trail to the lake would be some kind of buggy marsh. But now, in September, it was very dry and no bugs were to been seen. This made the traverse of the marsh very easy and in no time I found myself on the granite beach of the lower Cathedral Lake.
The lower Cathedral Lake is so beautiful, it is the real highlight of this trail. I was still wearing three layers of clothing: it was way too cold to take a swim (which I always love to do). So I started hiking around the lake instead.
The view of Cathedral Peak was the most impressive from the far end of the lake.
I met three hikers coming from the woods above the lake, where they had camped for the night. We talked about how hard is was to get a campsite, but these hikers did not even bother anymore to get permits or reservations. They just stealth camped behind the trees.
After taking more pictures of the lake, I headed back. The trail had gotten a bit crowded by now (about 10 am) and not before long I was back in my car at the trailhead. I did try to find a campsite again, but every camp was still full, which meant I had to leave the park behind me.
All in all I think the Cathedral Lake trail is a very beautiful day hike, that I would definitely recommend when you visit Yosemite. But for myself, I did not like the hassle of (not) finding a camp site, the rows of cars and the overall crowdedness of the park. But maybe the time in Sequoia Kings kind of spoiled me.