John Muir Trail is a popular hike in Yosemite National Park, and the trail actually runs from Yosemite Valley all the way to Mount Whitney. My photo trekking buddy Bill and I hadn’t done anything crazy in a while, so when he emailed me suggesting we make the hike to Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite one day that it was forecast to storm, it seemed like an opportunity for much-needed adventure.
In this post, I’ll offer start by offering information about hiking John Muir Trail to Cathedral Lakes and basic thoughts on the hike and destination itself, followed by part 1 of my narrative account of the experience, which will include some random banter and photos from the hike (and by hike, I mean the eye candy that awaits at Cathedral Lakes…not random trees along the path and that sort of thing).
Trail & Hike Info
For starters, the trailhead for this section of John Muir Trail is on the Tioga Road near the west end of Tuolumne Meadows. Tioga Road is only open in the summer and early fall (usually June through October, but if there’s early or late snow, those dates are subject to change) because Yosemite doesn’t plow this road and plays it conservatively during winter, even if there isn’t snow.
There are porta-potties, food storage, and some parking here, although most people are going to have to park along the row, as this is a very popular trailhead.
As for the trail itself, the first half-mile was especially bad, with steep uphill switchbacks that are exacerbated by the fact that the trail is at a high elevation, making you feel like you’re really sucking air as you go up. I would classify this portion of the trail as difficult in terms of strenuousness.
The rest of the trail is medium, at worst, but part of that is also the fact that your body becomes acclimated to the higher elevation (if you aren’t already). The trail itself is fairly well worn and easy to follow, with little potential for getting lost, unless you’re hiking at night without a headlamp or something.
John Muir Trail is reasonably popular (as mentioned, you’ll be parking on the road), especially the stretch between the trailhead and Lower Cathedral Lake, but it’s still sparsely crowded as compared to Yosemite Valley. There are probably never more hikers on the stretch of this trail between the head and the lakes than there are at Tunnel View alone at any given moment.
If I were to rate the trail itself in terms of beauty, I’d say the first 3 miles of the trail are a relative snooze. John Muir is probably rolling in his grave at that (assuming he has the internet in his grave and for some reason wastes it reading this site). Sorry, all of Yosemite National Park is gorgeous, but relative to the rest of the park, this trail is not that exciting. It’s basically a hike through the woods that is certainly pleasant enough, just nothing awe-inspiring.
Once you get to around the 3 mile mark, there’s a fork, with the left leading about another half mile to Upper Cathedral Lake and the right side a bit shorter of a distance down to Lower Cathedral Lake. These distances from the fork are really just estimates, and in any case, once you arrive at the edge of either lake, you’re going to do some wandering.
At the point when you reach the lakes, these trails become absolutely gorgeous, and you realize it’s all worthwhile. I suppose there’s a reason these lakes are called the “Cathedral” Lakes, and you’ll probably encountered a handful of backpackers setting up camp in Yoesmite’s Churches. (Although, we did notice one group with a fridge keg of beer, and I’m not sure what Lord Mother Nature thinks of such beverages in Her house of worship.)
All told, expect the hike to take a minimum of 3 hours if you just walk to one of the lakes and turn right around. More realistically, if you visit both of the Cathedral Lakes (as you should) expect it to be around a pleasant 6-hour round trip hike.
You can glean other thoughts about the hike in my Hike Report below…
Hike Report – Part 1
We started out from Orange County at around 8 am, I think, driving straight-away until we hit our standard Taco Bell a couple hours south of Yosemite. I have to say, I’m a pro when it comes to ordering cheap, filling meals off of the McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s menus, but Jack in the Box and Taco Bell continue to elude me. Does anyone have any go-to items on these menus that are CHEAP and filling? I find myself spending $6 on a meal at these places and still not being full. Seriously. I know this is immaterial to you, but these are the types of questions that keep me up at night.
Now that I’ve lost 75% of you, let’s actually get to Yosemite. After this stop we headed towards Tioga Pass and encountered a ridiculously long line at the Tioga Pass Entrance Station. It appeared that every summer tourist wanted the life story of John Muir on their way into the park. (Tip: even if you’re at an unfamiliar park, the Entrance Station is not the place to learn about said park–go to a Visitor Center.)
After about 30 minutes, we finally were in, and we continued up Tioga Road until we noticed the rain that had been hitting the windshield was getting a bit “thicker.” As we continued along the road, we noticed the temperature plummet on the display in Bill’s car. Just a few hours earlier as we drove through the desert and Lone Pine, the readout was well over 90 degrees. In no time at all, the rain turned to snow. We looked at each other with a bit of fear, as neither of us had packed for even remotely cold weather, and presumably, it would be getting colder at night.
Fortunately, when we arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead, the temperature had risen and there was no sign of snow. It was lightly sprinkling, and more rain was a distinct possibility, but we knew that going in, as we were hoping for a clearing storm. Still, we were prepared for a summer hike, so I think the temperature and snow had us a bit worried.
That worry soon dissipated and was replaced by the agony of the hike. Maybe it was just because I hadn’t hiked in a while, or maybe it was getting used to the high elevation, but the first mile of this trail seemed especially brutal. I realized at this point that I had made some bad life decisions eating at In-N-Out at least once per week for the last few months.
After this initial ascent, the trail evened out. This, coupled with getting used to breathing the air of the higher elevation made the rest of the hike feel like a frolic in the park. As moderate as it might have been, about 2.5 miles in we started questioning why we hadn’t found the fork in the path yet, as it felt like we had already gone about 4 miles. We hadn’t really seen many other hikers for a while, which compounded our concerns that we missed it. Finally, we passed a woman who informed us that the fork was just ahead. I don’t know why, but these hikes invariably feel a lot longer than they actually are.
When we finally arrived at the fork, we had more than a couple of hours before sunset, so we opted to go down to Lower Cathedral Lake to scope it out. Another half mile or so later, and we were there.
As soon as we stepped out to the edge of Lower Cathedral Lake, it was all worth it. The lake was gorgeous, and surrounded by mountains, it felt like one of those places you could go to retire and escape the world, living the rest of your life in solitude with nature. Well, at least that’s the idealized vision of it; you’d certainly encounter other people here.
Shortly after we started the hike, the sprinkling had stopped. As we looked out over the lake, we became concerned about additional rain, but also the thickness of the cloud cover. We were optimistic, though, thinking there was a good chance the clouds would break right at sunset. We had plenty of time before that, though, and the midday sky was looking good, so we ran around taking photos.
We wandered around the lake, overhearing a family of backpackers setting up their camp. This family included what appeared to be a teenage boy and girl, and they appeared to be the British version of the Cleavers. Everyone seemed to be getting along and happy to be there…I didn’t know such a family existed outside of sitcoms.
The sky was looking better by the minute, and Bill and I became a bit giddy, scheming about the possibilities for how we could tackle this come sunset. The Yosemite gods had not been kind to us on our previous visits, so we felt we were “due” for something epic. We continued this scheming as we pushed onward towards Upper Cathedral Lake.
Wandering around the outside of that lake, we noticed that the thick cloud cover we had observed at Lower Cathedral Lake was breaking, but it was breaking a little too fast. To the west, the cloud cover still looked good, but it was moving fast. To the east, especially over Cathedral Peak, there was almost nothing. How cruel Yosemite could be.
Going into the hike, we knew we wanted to hike up the mountainside opposite Cathedral Peak for a sunset shot of the mountain with Upper Cathedral Lake in the foreground. However, in looking at the sky, it seemed that would be a pretty bland spot. With less than an hour until sunset, it was decision time: did we try scrambling up the mountain and hoping clouds would magically appear, or go for the safer bet along the shore?
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, other great resources are Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park, and his blog on the same.
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.
Have you hiked John Muir Trail? What do you think of the Cathedral Lakes? Does this hike look interesting to you (so far)? Yosemite veterans, do you have any additional suggestions? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!