Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite: A Chilly Stop on the John Muir Trail

Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite: A Chilly Stop on the John Muir Trail

In the fall of 2012 Curtis and I hiked up to Lower Cathedral Lake just before a snow storm started doing it’s thing. At that time a couple backpackers were around (even though no overnight parking was allowed on the road for the season anymore) – but mostly the trail was dominated by a smattering of day hikers enjoying the last nice fall day. Last month I decided to make the return trip up the trail to visit Upper Cathedral Lake, and wholly backpackers: Backpacking families, weekenders, John Muir Trail thru-hikers, pack trains, and many more day hikers were sharing the trail head here.

Good thing Cathedrals lakes are big! The upper lake is slightly smaller than the lower, but not by much. And definitely not small enough to make it a traditional “swimming lake”. This was my first trial of the on-sale wetsuit I had gotten, and I was certainly glad to have it for the short dip I did in the lake. Brr!

Day Hiking Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite

Trailhead: Tioga Rd / Hwy 120, on the West side of Tuolumne Meadows by the Cathedral Lakes sign. Parking here is pullout/parallel and usually a mess so you should see the line of cars as you approach. Map
Distance: a little less than 8 miles round trip. The hike starts out with an uphill of about 1000ft over the course of a mile, then a little breather before scaling another 1000ft-ish mile hump. Pretty easy from there on out to the lakes. GPS track for return trip (signal was spotty going up to the lake).

The trail to Cathedral Lakes weaves through the forest as you gain elevation away from Tuolumne Meadows, offering a few peaks through the canopy to the domes in the meadows, and ahead the granite Cathedral Peak. Recently I have heard people complain about the lack of views on the trail, but considering how short the trail is I don’t know what one could expect. Plus, it is often a shaded route which is a very good thing in the summer.

Trail to Upper Cathedral Lake

Just another “boring” day on a section of the John Muir Trail.

Arriving at the Cathedral Lakes intersection I chose to stay on the trail (fork left) to visit Upper Cathedral Lake, instead of following the trail down to Lower Cathedral. After a bit more climbing I followed a use trail to the closest edge of Upper Cathedral, an area where horses often visit. Another use path to the lake (the one I took back to the trailhead) takes off to the right just after a meadow restoration sign.

The lake is nestled in front of Tresidder Peak, and walking around to the other side will give some views of the lake with Cathedral Peak. Testing the new wetsuit I took the shorted cold water transect of the lake I could find… my advice? Maybe save this one is for the sierra penguins (or ducks, whatever).

After my cold water swim, back at the glasses! Scooped another lake for the summer!

After my cold water swim! Scooped another lake for the summer!

Next time I would like to continue onto Cathedral Pass. Actually, I think given a couple of cars or a well timed bus schedule doing a hike out of Cathedral and around to Sunrise Lakes would be an excellent long day hike… someday!