Backpacking to Cathedral Lake in the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite National Park is about 8 miles. This out-and-back trail gains roughly 1,624 feet and is rated as a moderate trail with lots of foot traffic. the trail features two beautiful lakes, Upper and Lower Cathedral Lake with sweeping views of Tuolumne Meadows and the neighboring peaks.
Permits are required for all overnight trips in Yosemite, including backpacking to Cathedral Lake, and can be reserved via recreation.gov
Check for your desired backpacking dates above on Outdoor Status or sign up to receive a push alert to your phone if your desired dates become available.
From November 14th to May 14th, the reservable quota of wilderness permits is first allotted through a weekly lottery that is 24 weeks in advance of the entry date. Each group may submit one application to each seven (7) day lottery window. Multiple applications for the same lottery are not allowed.
Applicants may submit up to eight (8) preferred itineraries per application, with only one itinerary being awarded per week. The application period runs Sunday to Saturday, and notified of the lottery the following Monday. Successful lottery applicants must confirm their reservation by Thursday at 11:59 p.m.
Any remaining reservable quota for each lottery window will be released and available for general on sale reservation on Friday at 9:00 a.m.
First Come, First Served Permits:
40% of permits are released online at 7am, 7 days before your trip date. For example, if your plan is to start backpacking to Cathedral Lake on Saturday, they’ll be released on the previous Saturday.
↟Tuolumne Meadows closes after the first snowfall of the year and can stay closed until early summer (sometimes even July depending on how much snow they have gotten). For the most updated conditions visit the park website here.
↟The road in this area of Tuolumne Meadows is frequently under construction. You may need to prepare to park at Tuolumne Meadows Visitor center to walk to the main trailhead, this is flat and will add about a half mile each way.
↟ Bears live in Yosemite National Park and are quite active! When backpacking to Cathedral Lake (or anywhere in Yosemite), bear cans are required, and bear spray is prohibited. The Black Bears are very skiddish and not dangerous, they just want your food. You should keep your can about 50ish yards from your tent, with all smelly products and trash inside it.
↟During the summer, mosquitos run RAMPANT at both Cathedral Lakes. If you are hiking or backpacking to Cathedral Lake, make sure you bring adequate equipment, and mosquito repellent. I have an entire blog post dedicated to my favorite products that you can read here.
↟ No campfires at either Cathedral Lake; and no campfires at all locations above 9,600 feet in Yosemite National Park
↟ Choose a campsite at least 200 feet away from lakes, streams, or trails. It is very important to do this in order to protect fragile ecosystems. The Tuolumne Watershed is an extremely important ecosystem in California and all washing and waste must be done 300 feet away from water sources.
↟ Recreate Responsibly, and Leave No Trace. Stay on trail, don’t cut switchbacks, pack out your TP and trash, and be a good nature-loving individual.
Trip Dates: August 6-7th, 2022
Total Mileage: 8 miles
Trail Type: Out and Back
Trailhead: Cathedral Lake
After camping just outside Yosemite National Park, Reid, myself, and two of our close friends set out for Tuolumne Meadows with a car full of backpacking and climbing gear. Our rough plan was to backpack to Cathedral Lake with enough time that our rad climber friend Caleb could take Reid up the southeast buttress, a trad climb that leads to the top of the 10,000 ft Cathedral Peak.
We parked just inside the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, repacking our backpacks and taking a quick inventory of our food for the night. The boys took a bit longer, double-checking their climbing gear and making sure the pack the right amount of cams, slings, and layers for an ascent up the Peak. After strapping the climbing rope to our friend Calebs pack, we locked up the Go Fast and headed to the trail.
The trail to Cathedral Lakes felt very familiar to me. I had done it two times before, in previous years, just without my backpacking gear. The climb is steady, and quickly gains 1,000 feet before dropping into the valley where you meet the base of Cathedral Peak, and eventually the Lower Cathedral Lake area.
We chose to fore-go a revisit to the Lower Cathedral Lake, after having some bad run-ins with mosquitos in previous years and opted to head towards Upper Cathedral Lake for the views and access to the climbing route. Around lunchtime we made it lakeside and enjoyed some tuna wraps, gummy bears, and dips in the lake.
After our mid-day siesta, we repacked our gear and were met with a Wilderness Ranger on patrol checking permits. I have run into several Rangers over the last few years on trail, and the Rangers in Yosemite are always on top of popular trails like this one. He had asked me where we were thinking of setting up camp and I told him we were going to walk up the ridge to see if we could find any good views. “Well, that’s a great idea!” he said with a smile. And we went on our way
There were several camp spots around the lake as we walked passed, but my sights were set on a clearing above Cathedral Lake that I expected to have some great views of the Meadows and Lower Cathedral Lake from the top. We managed to find a flat spot just over the crest and began to set up camp.
The boys kept debating on when they wanted to set out for their climb. There were reports of some storm clouds moving around the area, and Tuolumne Meadows has a reputation for thunderstorms descending on its peaks without warning. They could pack now, and hope to summit around sunset, or wake up early tomorrow and try to get to the base early, around sunrise (likely with other summit-hungry climbers).
They opted for the first option, strewing out their gear before shoving it back in their packs with a few more snacks and layers for the trek. My friend, Kelly, and I held down the fort at camp with plans of a relaxing afternoon of reading and a hopefully eventful sunset.
At about 7:30pm, the sun began to set and Kelly and I took a break from our books to stroll around the lake. We walked up the ridge to the right of our camp and sat watching the clouds turn a vibrant pink before dusk descended on the Lake and Peak. Kelly and I weren’t exactly sure what stage the boys were at in their climb, but by our estimates it had been a couple hours already and they surely couldn’t be far from the top.
We made it back to camp as it started getting dark, and straped on our headlamps to start fixing some dinner. Every few minutes we would glance back at Cathedral Peak, hoping to see the trails of headlamps heading down the side of the mountain back to us. The last traces of light on the horizon went, and complete darkness started swallowing the peak. We could hardly distinguish the outline of the mountain, and the dim stars behind it grew brighter each minute.
At about 8pm, we saw the flashing lights of two people on top of the Peak, signaling to us with flashlight-code. A ping came to our InReach with one word “Summit”. They had made it to the top!
By the time Reid and Caleb got back to camp, Kelly and I had retreated to our tents to stay warm. As soon as both of us decided it was time to try and sleep, our climber boyfriends returned to camp.
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