Cathedral Lakes Hike Report – Part 2


We left off Part 1 of the Cathedral Lakes Hike Report with our heroes faced with a dilemma that could* have a ripple effect that would impact the fate of mankind: scramble up the mountain for a higher sunset vantage, or stay at ground level to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, shooting any and every angle. It was truly a decision for the ages. Or at least the biggest decision of that particular day, for us.

The upside to scrambling up the mountain was that it would afford the ideal vantage if the sunset were epic; the downside was that scrambling is a real pain, but more importantly, that doing it would probably box us in to one angle where a great sunset was less likely, and we’d probably miss out on the “sure thing” shots.

The upside to staying low was that we’d have greater mobility and a better chance of walking away with multiple keepers from different vantages because we could easily race around the lake. It also would allow us to shoot into the sun, which is where most of the clouds were gathered at that time, meaning the sunset were likely to be more epic in that direction. The downside was that it meant leaving what we both thought was the best shot on the table.

In case you haven’t read some of the other reports from our banzai photography trips, Bill and I are schemers. We still had around an hour until sunset, which was a ton of time. I suggested that I scramble up the mountain just to scout things out. I found a somewhat simple “path” up that wasn’t too far up, and I was really liking the view from there, and it was low enough that we could theoretically race down and grab other shots at sunset. Bill followed, and agreed that it was good.

DSC_2656 as Smart Object-1 copy

But it wasn’t good enough. I was curious as to what it looked like a bit higher, so I scrambled on (that sounds like a regretted Led Zeppelin song name). Getting higher was a bit trickier, but I found a way that was fine, so we went higher. This view was definitely better, but it was still a dice roll as to whether the sky over Cathedral Peak would have any cloud cover or would be totally clear.

Sunset was fast approaching, and with each passing minute the conditions seemed to be improving, so we both held out and stayed at the higher elevation. Our thinking was that we’d be able to tell pretty quickly how the sun might color the sky as soon as it dropped below the mountain line (before official sunset time), so we could still race down if there wasn’t any color above Cathedral Peak.


Maybe 10 minutes or so before official sunset time, things were looking really good. Clouds had rolled in around us, but the sun was still getting through to give them soft, golden edges. Cathedral Peak had nice dimensionality thanks to some shadows from clouds. I didn’t know what an ideal shot would look like, but I was really liking what I saw.

Note that the above photo was taken only 30 minutes after the photo above that. What a difference only 30 minutes makes in terms of light…


At this point, Bill decided to bail, thinking he might be able to get more down around the lake. Patience is not my strong suit, but I decided to hold out, hoping that maybe I’d be treated to some ethereal scene that looked more like Mordor than Yosemite.

The light did get slightly better, and I was able to capture the panorama below when things were pretty much optimal (click here to see it in high resolution glory on SmugMug), but I was hoping for some crazy colors.


The clouds were moving fast, and right around sunset it became apparent that I wasn’t going to get my colorful, dream-like sky, as everything was falling apart. Looking to the west, I saw the sky had some promise, so I grabbed my camera, and started bouncing down the mountain, getting to the ground in about one-fifth the amount of time it took me to get up. Somehow, I become much more sure-footed when I’m chasing the light, and not thinking about each step (famous last words, right?).

When I got to the bottom, it was just after official sunset, and the sky wasn’t looking so great. In the 5 minutes or so it took me to get down, almost all of the clouds around the mountains had fallen apart, although there was a gorgeous reddish-orange glow on Cathedral Peak itself (see first photo). Still, I decided to race around the lake to see if the view were any different.

It wasn’t, so at this point, I collapsed on a rock by the water, tired from running with my camera bag and cursing In-N-Out for making such deliciously addictive burgers. I also drank in the beauty of the scene of the golden light warming the mountainside, which was truly a picturesque scene. I did this for all of 2 minutes when I noticed some clouds beautifully lit up in the distance, possibly in the direction of Lower Cathedral Lake.

I shot up, yelling out to Bill that I was heading to Lower Cathedral Lake. At about 1 mile away, I don’t know what I was thinking with this hair-brained idea. I think I just enjoy the thrill of the chase, and having some odd sense of adventure.

Suddenly, I had all of the energy in the world, and I started running to Lower Cathedral Lake, camera bag and all. From the time of my last shot at Upper Cathedral Lake until my first shot at Lower Cathedral Lake, only 16 minutes elapsed. Unfortunately, that 16 minutes was enough time for all of the lingering sunset light to fade away (obviously), and there were no worthwhile shots. In the back of my mind, I knew this was the inevitable outcome, so I wasn’t really disappointed. Hopefully I at least burned off a Double-Double or two during the run.


I just sat down for a bit, marveling at the scene. As a photographer, it’s easy to get caught up in the thirst for great photos, causing you to experience too much of the beauty through a viewfinder. I always try to remind myself to slow down and actually absorb the experience, in person, too. I had already thought Yosemite is one of the most beautiful National Parks, and this trip introduced me to a new-to-me beautiful area. It’s no wonder John Muir said of Cathedral Peak, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper. In our best times, everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church, and the mountains altars.”

After watching the last fading ember of sunlight fade on the horizon, I trudged my way back up to the fork in John Muir Trail where Bill was waiting. From there, we headed back to the car, on a trail that now seemed 7 miles long. It was fairly cold when we got back to the car, but we were both relieved that we had somehow largely managed to avoid both snow and rain during the hike. All told, I ended up hiking about 11 miles, and it was more than worth it.


On the way out, we stopped for to see if it were worth trying to shoot the Milky Way. I took a couple of test shots, but there were so many passing cars that this seemed like an exercise in futility. (The above photo is for illustrative purposes only; I realize it’s not good.) Plus, it was already 10:45 pm, and we had a long 7-8 hour drive back to Orange County.

And a long drive it was, powered by more Rockstar Energy Drink than any human should consume. I finally pulled into my garage just before 6:30 am, which is roughly the time I had left the previous morning for Bill’s house. I couldn’t get right to sleep–perhaps from the high of the trip or perhaps from all the caffeine–but I eventually crashed, beat down from the long day, but excited for more photography adventures this fall.

I photographed these shots with my Nikon D750, Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lensand Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye.

If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re looking for more Yosemite photo spots, check out my Yosemite National Park Photo Spots & Tips post. Also, another great resource is Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park.

To get some more Yosemite National Park photo ideas, check out my Yosemite National Park photo gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken on my visits there. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

Your Thoughts…

What would you have done–played it safe and gone for more shots or rolled the dice on something more epic? What do you think of the Cathedral Lakes? How does the Cathedral Lakes area look to you? What do you think of the results? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!

9 replies
  1. Eric Gail
    Eric Gail says:

    Thanks for the run-down Tom. (Get It)
    I love reading the stories of your trials and tribulations of photography. It would be great if we could meet up before one of your Bonsai Yosemite runs. I live in Rancho Cucamonga, 2 mins off the 15 frwy and dropping in would be so welcomed. I am in great shape and have spent a lot of time climbing in Yosemite in my younger days. If you ever need someone to accompany you, I would be honored. Thanks again for the great stories.
    Eric Gail

  2. Joshua D.
    Joshua D. says:


    So has travel caffeine and the tourist blog become a full time gig? It would seem between The national parks and WDW / DCA you have quite the full travel schedule. Glad to see some new posts here and as well as the tourist blog. I’ve been trying to get the milky way all summer but have been rained out and had bad luck with the clouds, still a great shot.

  3. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    I really enjoy reading these “mad adventures” you gentlemen have out there. What I like most is imagining myself out there with you racing around trying to capture images that will last a lifetime. Great images Tom. Thanks for these fun reports. Maybe in the future you can start making videos to go along with them? Lol. Can you imagine us all enjoying you scurrying around the mountainside in search of the ultimate shot?

    Where are you headed next?

  4. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    First of all, I was very glad to see that you classified the first leg of this hike as “strenuous” as I kept having to stop every so often just to make sure my heart didn’t explode. Keeping up with you marathon types isn’t my forte, so I was relieved that read that you didn’t consider it to be a piece of cake.

    Secondly, I love how these shots came out! I know we were both a bit bummed about the color not exploding just before or after sunset, but I honestly haven’t seen any other shots like our fisheye shots from up on the hillside before and those alone were more than enough reward for making the hike up there and getting back home after 5 AM. I hope the rest of mine come out this well! The reflections are gorgeous!

    Third….16 minutes! That’s just wrong. I think it took me about 45 and that was partially because something weird was going on with my back. I stopped and took my water bottle off of my hip, and suddenly I was OK again. Weird how a little thing like a 1 liter bottle can throw your whole back out of alignment, especially when you are already toasted. But even then, I have no idea how you got all the way back down to the lower lake that fast. Sorry you missed your window, but that’s a beautiful twilight shot.

    Can’t wait to try this again!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Haha, yeah, the hike was tough at the beginning. Again, though, I’m really out of shape right now and the thin air didn’t help.

      Given how many times we’ve had bad luck at Yosemite this year, I’m just glad we got *something* this time. I love the way the clouds look in the pre-sunset shots, so I can’t really complain. It would have taken a lot of luck to get crazy color in the east, so this was a nice consolation.

      That 16 minute dash was why I didn’t mind taking it slow the rest of the way back to the car. I was dying after that, and really can’t believe I rushed so much for a shot I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to get.

  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Thanks for posting part 2 so quickly! All the pictures worked this time – I really like the panoramic on smugmug; the black background helps.

    I would have done the climb rather than stay down below for pictures, but that’s probably less photography related and more that it’s fun to climb and I would have wanted to at least see the view from up there.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Glad it worked this time. I’ll have to remember to do it that way in the future.

      The view from up there was stunning, and the climb was definitely fun, too. I think we made the right decision, in retrospect.

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