granite cliff mountiain in alpenglow at sunset, lake at the base

Cathedral Lakes Yosemite Hike: Read This Before Your Adventure!

Share Me!

While I had been to Yosemite National Park twice before my visit to hike Cathedral Lakes, nothing prepared me for the beauty of this section of the park.

One of the most best hikes in Yosemite, Cathedral Lakes makes for a fantastic day trip or overnight backpacking trail.

This moderately challenging hike takes you through awe-inspiring alpine meadows, towering granite peaks, and crystal-clear lakes that mirror the surrounding majestic landscapes.

Keep reading below for trail highlights, permit information, and all the things you need to know before embarking on this stunning hike! contains affiliate links and is a member of the Amazon LLC Associates Program. If you make a purchase using one of these Amazon links, I may receive compensation at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in. Read my disclaimer for more information.

Planning your trip? Use my favorite resources!

Accommodation – to find the best deals on hotels.
FlightsSkyscanner to look for the best prices and deals on flights.
Rental carsDiscoverCars to shop around at multiple car rental agencies.
Travel insurance Safety Wing; keep your trips insured to protect yourself while traveling.
Tours/experiences – Viator or Get Your Guide are excellent sources for tours.

Background Information on Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California, 4 hours from San Francisco and 6.5 hours from Los Angeles. It’s a great stop on a California road trip!

The National Park is known for its’ picturesque views of waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, and giant Sequoia trees.

The park is divided into 4 main areas: Tuolumne Meadows, Wawona, Yosemite Valley, and the Mather districts. Yosemite Valley is the most popular and most accessible year round.

🎟 There is a fee of 35$ a vehicle upon entering the park. If you plan to make a visit to a National Park at least 3 times a year, it is more beneficial to purchase the 80$ interagency pass to maximize your savings. Yosemite also has driving reservations certain times of the year- check here for the latest details.

granite cliff peak over lake at sunset
Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite at Sunset

Description of Cathedral Lakes Yosemite Hike

Trailhead Location

Cathedral Lakes is located in the Tuolumne Meadows section of Yosemite, and can only be accessed via Tioga Road aka Tioga Pass.

Tioga Road opens when it is free of snow, usually between late May and November. Check here for historical road openings & closures.

The trailhead for the Cathedral Lakes hike is a 1/2 mile away from the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. Be sure to store all food and scented items in your car such as toiletries into a bear box in the parking lot before embarking on your hike. Bears do break into cars!

Note that this is one of the busiest trailheads in the area, so it may be better to take the shuttle bus.

🗑 Remember to leave no trace and pack out whatever you pack in, including food scraps and trash. Leave everything how you found it, and never deface rocks.

Trail Stats

  • Distance: 7-9.5 miles, depending if you go to both lakes or just Upper Cathedral Lake.
  • Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,100 feet.
  • Estimated Time: 3-5 hours dependent on hiking speed and time spent at the lakes.
  • Trailhead Elevation: 8,500 feet.
  • Lower Cathedral Lake Elevation: 9,290 feet.
  • Upper Cathedral Lake Elevation: 9,600 feet.
photo of water boiling for coffee at sunrise in the mountains
View from my tent making coffee at sunrise, camping at Upper Cathedral Lake.

Permits for Cathedral Lakes

You do not need a permit or reservation to do a day hike to Cathedral Lake.

If you want the opportunity to backpack to Cathedral Lakes, you will need an overnight wilderness permit. It’s a bit confusing on how to get one, so let me breakdown exactly how to get your hands on one. Recreation.Gov is the website you will use to get permits!

  • 60% of reservations by lottery 6 months in advance.
  • Remaining reservations not taken by lottery are released on a first come first served basis from 22 weeks – 7 days before your desired date.
  • The additional 40% of reservations are released exactly 7 days before your desired date.

For example, if you wanted to backpack in on August 1 you can first apply on February 1 for your overnight permit. If you weren’t selected, check the website regularly, especially as the date approaches as many people drop their reservation. If you still never got your reservation, go on the website exactly at 7am Pacific Time on July 25 and try to snag them when they release them.

I went on September 24 and got my permit by logging in and being ready at 7 am the week before. Within maybe 10 minutes they were completely gone so it is imperative that you log in on time as there is a very low quota for this hike!

girl smiling for a selfie while backpacking in yosemite
All smiles heading down after camping at Upper Cathedral Lake!

Looking for more epic California backpacking trails? Check out Channel Islands and Big Pine Lakes!

Cathedral Lakes Trail Features

The trail to Cathedral Lakes rises 1,000 feet in about 3.5 miles. The elevation gain is pretty challenging especially being over 9,000 feet where the air is a lot thinner.

For most of the hike you’ll be in a beautiful forest with a nicely maintained trail. There are a handful of streams to pass but nothing difficult.

As you climb higher you’ll encounter more glimpses of Yosemite’s high country and infamous granite cliffs.

Look out for when you reach the fork in the trail to go left to Upper Cathedral Lake or right to Lower Cathedral Lake. I chose to only go to Upper Cathedral Lake as I thought the photos I saw online were more scenic, but if you have the time and energy- go to both!

tree lined trail in california
What you can expect a lot of the Cathedral Lakes Hike to look like.

Tips for a Successful Hike

  • Be prepared. Above all else, be prepared with a trail map, plenty of water and salty snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray.
  • Check the weather. Yosemite can get afternoon thunderstorms often, so check the weather and start your hike early. Be aware if there are any wildfires in the area.
  • Be bear aware. Make noise while on the trail, never have scented items or food in your tent and keep them in a bear canister, and never approach a bear.
  • Acclimate. Try to do some shorter hikes to acclimate to the elevation a day prior to hiking the trail if you’re particularly sensitive to altitude. Hydrate properly and go slow!
  • Camp at least 200 feet away from a water source. This includes streams, rivers, and lakes.

Note that dogs are not allowed on this trail.

girl smiling at sunset in front of a lake and craggy granite mountains in yosemite
Upper Cathedral Lake at sunset

Best Time to Hike Cathedral Lakes

You can only hike the Cathedral Lakes trail when Tioga Road is open, typically June through November. And you can only backpack here before October 15, after which overnight parking is not allowed.

Being there is a short window you can hike the trail, the best time to hike to Cathedral Lake is in the summer and early fall months.

I went in late September when the bugs had died off and the daytime temperatures were perfect for hiking. Overnight it did drop into the 30s but if you pack and dress appropriately, it is comfortable.

🍃 Overall I would say the absolute best time to hike Cathedral Lakes would be early-mid September when the bugs have lessened, the crowds are thinner, but overnight temps would be more tolerable.

Day Hike Packing Essentials

  • 2 liters of water per person, especially if you hike midday in the summer.
  • Snacks, especially salty snacks to replenish salt lost in sweat if it’s hot out.
  • Layers of clothes as it can get chillier at higher elevations near the lakes. Try to stay away from cotton as it absorbs sweat and doesn’t dry quickly.

Overnight Backpacking Essentials

  • Tent, sleeping pad, & sleeping bag.
  • Water filter and water purification tablets justtt in case my filter breaks!
  • Jet boil or small camping stove for heating water to reheat dehydrated meals and coffee (of course!)
  • Bear canister for food storage at camp- always keep your bear canister with all your food and toiletries in it at least 100 feet from your tent on flat, level ground!
  • Communication device such as a Garmin inReach. I use a Zoleo, a cheaper option, but still works very well!
  • Trowel to dig a cathole at least 6 inches deep for going number 2, or a portable toilet bag if you prefer to pack out your waste.
  • First Aid Kit.

🥶 Cold Weather Camping Tip: Boil water and put it in a Nalgene right before you go to sleep. Put the Nalgene in your sleeping bag between your legs or next to you and it should stay really warm for at least half the night. It’s like a personal heater! And invest in a high R value sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground.

granite cliff mountain above, with a tent surrounded by trees
Camping at Upper Cathedral Lake

Looking for more travel ideas in California? Check out Anza Borrego State Park & Joshua Tree in SoCal, Mount Shasta in NorCal, or take a trip up the coast!

Navigating the Trail

I use the AllTrails app and pay for the yearly subscription to be able to download trail maps to my phone and use them offline. You can find the one for Cathedral Lakes here.

They have been incredibly helpful and valuable to me over the years, with topographical options and GPS enabled so you can actively see if you are on the trail or not.

This trail is generally very easy to follow and very popular, so the chances of getting lost are pretty slim. But having a downloaded trail map handy is never a bad idea!

Safety Considerations for Cathedral Lakes Hike

I went on this hike as a one night backpacking trip by myself and felt very safe. Especially as a woman, it’s important to be even more cautious and always stay aware of your surroundings.

But I try to never let fear control what I can or cannot do. I feel even safer hiking in a National Park, where there are trail and camping regulations and reservations with rangers to enforce them.

A few precautions I take while solo camping include always sharing my location and plans with a few close people, having a satellite communication device, and having pepper spray and a pocket knife on me. Sometimes I wonder what I would actually do with those two little things, but to me it’s better than nothing!

view from a tent in yosemite
Camping at Upper Cathedral Lake

Bear Safety in Yosemite

There are only black bears in Yosemite, which in general are probably more scared of you than you are of them.

But your main priority while in bear country is to prevent the bear from ever eating your food. If they get that far, they are much more likely to become aggressive.

You can help prevent this by keeping a clean camp, never littering, packing out all trash even food scraps like an orange peel or apple core, and utilizing a bear canister while camping.

Exploring Beyond Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite

Have more time in Yosemite? Check out Yosemite Valley and drive up Glacier Point Road- definitely one of the best views in the whole park. My favorite time to go to Glacier Point is at sunrise.

Do the difficult climb up to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, or the infamous Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. Daredevils can climb Half Dome, but read up about permits for that hike!

And be sure check out Mariposa Grove, home to 500 mature massive Sequoia trees!

view of glacier point in yosemite at sunset
Glacier Point at Sunset

Wrap Up: Cathedral Lakes Yosemite Hike

In conclusion, the Cathedral Lakes Hike in Yosemite National Park is a truly breathtaking and rewarding experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

From the towering granite cliffs to the crystal-clear lakes nestled in the high country, this trail offers unparalleled beauty and serenity.

Cathedral Lakes makes for a great day hike or overnight backpacking experience to fully immerse yourself in nature.

But one should always be prepared before heading into the Yosemite wilderness. I hope this article was helpful to you for your trip, and it inspired you to connect with the outdoors!

Share Me!

Similar Posts