The climb to Cathedral Lakes is a classic and justifiably popular hike in Yosemite NP. Starting at over 8,500ft in the High Sierra, the route takes in a section of the John Muir Trail which weaves through thick stands of coniferous forests leading to a spectacular clearing at nearly 9,300ft.
Once we’d found a place to park the RV for the night, a nice ‘pitch’ and the substantial Tuolumne Meadows campground, I was keen to stretch my legs. As much as I’d enjoyed our slow trundle north through Yosemite, I needed some time along in the woods. Some time to really tune into this special place and hone in on its sights, sounds and smells.
Another advantage of this particular route was that I could pick up a branch trail at the back of the site and link with the JMT just south of the Cathedral Lakes trail head. No driving needed today, then. Total distance for the round trip would be 11-12 miles… ideal.
I left early. With the sun just appearing over the mountain ridge our camp was cold, the temperature a little above freezing. At this altitude, the extremes of day and night are keenly felt, as is the slightly thinner air. My legs felt a bit more sluggish than normal, my breathing a bit more laboured.
There are advantages of starting early. You get the best of the weather – and hopefully avoid the afternoon thunder and lightning storms that roll though after lunch. You avoid the crowds, too.
I found the path out of the campground and picked up the trail east. Leaving the last of the tents, the sounds of the forest soon took over. Occasional birdsong and chirp of chipmunks and squirrels was accompanied by a gentle hiss of the breeze in the trees.
The forest floor was dark at this early hour, but soon the sun was high enough to enliven the bronze, silver and ruddy brown hues of the tree trunks. I then felt its intensity on the back of my neck and was soon removing layers as the temperature quickly climbed.
The path rolled through the forest and found bleached clearings in the canopy. Crossing a pretty brook is soon found the junction with the JMT. Here, typically informative and cautionary National Park Service signs warned of the dangers of lightning and bears. We’d yet to see a bear on our trip, and I wasn’t too keen to break my duck today. That said, I didn’t feel ‘bear aware’ as I had done hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Perhaps it was the threat of Grizzlies north of the border (now sadly missing from Yosemite) or the slightly more claustrophobic trails… perhaps I’d just rationalised the threat of encounter.
The gradient increased as I joined the JMT and switch back trail climbed the hillside. I now started to meet the odd backpacker getting an early start from their overnight stops. All seemed to be heavily laden with gear.
Trail conditions were good, although it was clear this popular route gets plenty of use. Sections were deeply eroded, although tree fall was dealt with in a determined fashion. Huge sections of tree trunk are simply chainsawed away and levered to the side of the trail.
Route finding was easy on the trail and a rusting sign soon pointed the way to Cathedral Lake. To the south, the impressive fang of Cathedral Peak was now in view and scrambling on its rocky slopes looked very appealing.
The gradient now eased, the trail emptied into a glorious alpine meadow. A crystal stream twisted through the scene and deer lazily grazed on lush grass, seemingly untroubled by my clumping presence.
Across the plain I could see a band of ubiquitous Yosemite granite but no lake. A quick clamber to the crest of the hummock, and a charming body of water with woodland bordering its northern banks came into view.
My immediate thought? What a fabulous spot for a wild camp and turning around I spotted a couple of hikers pitching their tent in the trees. I lay back on the rock and felt the sun on my face and heat radiatiing onto my back. It was a wonderful sensation and I dozed fro a few minutes.
I was awoken by a rumble of thunder. Looking east, a wall of grey advanced along the valley. Feint flashes of lightning picked out textures in the cloud.
I picked up my pack and retraced my steps. My only disappointment plotting this tour had been the need to do follow the route in reverse… a common trait with US day hikes. In practice, though, the trail in reverse had plenty of interest as I viewed the trail from this new aspect.
I met many hikers making their ascent and many were worried about making the lake before the heavens opened. I envied the backpackers who would be spending a wild night in a magical spot.
Route: Cathedral Lakes, Yosemite NP
The Muir Project
A group of multi-media artists have just completed the entire Muir Trail with the intent of capturing the trial and bring it back to the general public in the form of a gallery exhibit including photographs, video installations and hands-on displays. This fabulous video provides a taste of their journey and the trail. Inspiration, if you need it, to give it a go.