Backpacking for Beginners: Cathedral Lakes at Yosemite National Park
(Courtesy of Happy When Hiking)

Backpacking for Beginners: Cathedral Lakes at Yosemite National Park


The Cathedral Lakes Trail is one of the most popular in the Tioga Road area of Yosemite National Park, and with good reason: This idyllic destination has the best of Yosemite—granite domes, crystal waters, and breathtaking peaks—all in one place.

Even so, the number of visitors to Upper and Lower Cathedral Lakes pale in comparison to trails in the valley and the crowds dwindle even farther after dark, when the only thing that stands between you and total solitude are a handful of intrepid backpackers.

What to Know About Cathedral Lakes

The Cathedral Lakes Trailhead, located half a mile west of the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, provides passage to two stunning bodies of deep blue water snuggled up against the church spire-like Cathedral Peak: the smaller Upper Cathedral Lake and the more robust Lower Cathedral Lake. Both require a wilderness permit for overnight stays (more on that below).

The trail to both lakes begins at Tioga Road where there is limited parking and a shuttle bus stop. The bad news is, you’ll spend the 3.5-mile hike out steadily climbing. At an elevation of 8,600 feet, this is no small task. But all that climbing has its benefits too. The views that stretch all the way to Echo Peak are nothing short of stunning.

Take your time following the trail until you hit a junction around 2.8 miles in. Veer left for Upper Cathedral or right for Lower Cathedral; each is about half a mile from this point. You can camp at either lake but may have more options at the lower lake, which is completely encircled by a loop trail. Always camp in an existing site at least 100 feet from water.

On the return, follow the approximately 3.5-mile out-and-back trail the way you came. It’s nearly all downhill and much faster going than the way up.

The trail to the Cathedral Lakes.(Courtesy of @serafindavid3)

How to Get a Yosemite wilderness permit

To minimize ecosystem impacts and assure that backpackers have the quiet they crave, Yosemite issues a limited number of overnight wilderness permits per trail. If you have a confirmed wilderness permit, you do not need to make an additional reservation to enter Yosemite.

In 2022, the park changed their reservation system a bit. Sixty percent of the available wilderness permits between April 29th and October 23rd become available via an online lottery system 24 weeks in advance. The other 40 percent are made available online seven days in advance. Wilderness permits are released at 7am and are available on a first come, first served basis.

There is a $10 fee to apply for a wilderness permit. If your application is selected, there is an additional $5 fee to confirm the reservation. The fee is not refundable even if your reservation is not confirmed. Pick up your permit at a Yosemite Wilderness Permit Station before you hit the trail.

When to Visit

Tioga Road and the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead typically open to visitors in late May or early June. They remain open until the first major snow storms brew, usually sometime in November.

Upper Cathedral Lake.(Courtesy of @jeffscottallen)

How to Get There

It’s about a 3.5- to 4.5-hour drive from the Bay Area to the western entrance of Yosemite, depending on your starting location and the traffic situation. From I-580, travel east about 20 miles to I-205 E towards Tracy/Stockton. Fifteen miles later, I-205 merges into I-5.

It’s a quick transition—less than a mile—from I-5 to exit 461 for CA-120 Manteca/Sonora. After six miles, exit left onto CA-120/CA-99 N towards Sacramento/Sonora N. Another 1.7 miles on, take exit 242 to CA-120/Yosemite Ave. CA-120 E will take a couple of turns through a developed area but all you have to do is stay the course. The road turns into Big Oak Flat about 90 miles later, followed by the western entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Once in the park, follow Big Oak Flat Road about eight miles to Ireland Lake. Turn left and continue onto Tioga Road (also called Tioga Pass Road). Continue approximately 38 miles (1.25 hours) to the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead on the road’s south (right) side. If you hit the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, you’ve overshot it by about half a mile.

// Tioga Rd Hwy 120 & Hwy 140 (Yosemite),

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