Without a doubt, Yosemite is one of the iconic parks of the entire National Park System. Despite being an icon of the National Park system, not much is known about where to go in Yosemite by the general public other than destinations in Yosemite Valley. While there is nothing wrong with Yosemite Valley, this is a shame because Yosemite is much greater than just the locations in and around the Valley. The park is actually divided into several regions by the National Park Service – the Wawona region, located at the southern end of the park; the Valley region, near the center of the park; the Big Oak Flat region, on the western end of the Tioga Pass Road; the Hetch Hetchy region at the far north end of the park; and the Tuolomne Meadows region, near the eastern end of the Tioga Pass Road. As Yosemite is as big as Rhode Island, none of these regions are small. But, as over ninety-five percent of Yosemite is designated wilderness, there is a large expanse of spots for visitors to explore in the park.
The Tuolomne Meadows portion of the park is commonly known as “the high country” of Yosemite, and the reason for this is that this area is above 6,000 feet of elevation. During the winter months, this area is also inaccessible to visitors, unless they have skis or snowshoes, as the main access route – the Tioga Pass Road – becomes snowed in, and is not plowed by the National Park Service. It is also an area that is chock-full of beauty. There are high alpine lakes; there are high mountains that are part of the Sierra Nevada range; there are waterfalls; there are wildflowers; and there is wildlife. It is a stunning portion of the park, and one that every visitor should take the opportunity to visit; and it is also an area that is far from the crowds of Yosemite Valley. While there are many great hikes in the region, one of my favorites is the Cathedral Lakes hike.
Directions: The trailhead for Cathedral Lakes is located directly off of the Tioga Pass Road. The nearest location to the trailhead is the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, which is a half mile to the East of the trailhead. While there is trailhead parking, this is an area that has become popular over the last ten years. The trailhead is part of the John Muir Trail, part of the High Sierra Camp loop, and popular with climbers and other overnight backpackers alike. Because of these “crowds”, the lot is sometimes full, especially as it is not large. Fortunately, the National Park Service has instituted a shuttle service to alleviate these parking concerns during the summer months; and the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead is stop number seven (7). If you are taking the shuttle, the trailhead is a short ride from the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. Irrespective of whether you park at the trailhead, or the Visitor Center, you should be sure to store your food properly, as this is an active bear area.
From the trailhead, the trail begins with a half mile of relatively flat terrain, which allows you to take in the majesty of the high alpine plateau before entering a forested area. It also allows you to somewhat adjust to the elevation present, as the trail begins at 8,500 feet. However, at the half mile mark, the trail begins to ascend a series of switchbacks. At the one mile mark, the trail levels out, and there is minimal elevation gain and loss for the remainder of the trail. Along the way, you will have intermittent views of Cathedral Peak, and if you are hiking during the late spring or early summer, you will likely pass seasonal waterfalls, seasonal flows, and wildflowers along the trail.
At the three mile mark, there is a well-signed turnoff for Cathedral Lakes. Follow this turnoff through the high alpine meadow (or if it is early in the season, high alpine swamp) to Lower Cathedral Lake (Elevation 9,290 feet). Once you are at the lake, you will have great views of the lake, and Cathedral Peak. After you are done admiring the views, return the way you came for a moderate seven mile roundtrip hike.
Tips: While the scenery is always spectacular, sometimes the conditions are a little more challenging. During the early summer months, portions of the trail can be hard to traverse due to the runoff from the winter snowmelt. Similarly, during these early months, the section of trail across the meadow to Lower Cathedral Lake can be quite difficult to pass through because of the mud and mosquitoes.