John Muir Trail: To Lower Cathedral Lake is 7.5 miles round trip with 1,000-foot elevation gain

Many of John Muir’s effusive descriptions of the High Sierra have a spiritual tone, and refer to landscapes as sanctuaries, temples and cathedrals. “This I must say is the first time I’ve been to church in California,” wrote John Muir after visiting the Cathedral Lakes and making the first recorded ascent of Cathedral Peak in 1869.

This hike offers a sampling of the John Muir Trail, with the great naturalist at our heels whispering: “Going to the mountains is going home.”


Parking is located on both shoulders of Highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) 1.5 miles west of Tuolumne Campground entrance or some 24 miles east of White Wolf. In summer, ride the free shuttle bus to the trailhead by leaving your car at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit station or Tenaya Lake.

Cathedral Lakes Map by (click to enlarge)
Cathedral Lakes Map by (click to enlarge)


Generations of hikers have delighted in the hike to Cathedral Lake and beyond.
Generations of hikers have delighted in the hike to Cathedral Lake and beyond.

Walk 0.1 mile through the forest to a four-way junction. Proceed straight on steep John Muir Trail, which can be dusty and is steep going for the first 0.7 mile. The trail mellows for a time, passes among lodgepole pine and climbs again.

About a mile out, Cathedral Peak pops into view. Traverse meadowland made soggy by Cathedral Creek and assorted creeklets in the late spring and early summer, curve from southwest to south, and pass above a gurgling spring.

Two-plus miles of ascent gains a forested saddle. And then the path descends, Cathedral Peak appears on the skyline to your left, and three miles out, the trail divides. (JMT leads another half mile to upper Cathedral Lake and its shoreline campsites, handsomely backdropped by craggy Cathedral Peak (10,911 feet) in the east and ten thousand footers Echo and Tressider Peaks rising above the south shore. Hike a few more minutes up the Muir Trail to Cathedral Pass and get a grand view of Cathedral Lakes Basin.)

Head west (right) to Cathedral Lake. The path descends through the woods and crosses a branch of Cathedral Creek. Turn right and fol¬low the watercourse down-creek. Try to stay on the main trail (as opposed to one of the use trails) as you cross the meadow. The meadow is known to be muddy and you might have to hike through it in over-your-boot-deep water and/or mud to reach Cathedral Lake, a popular weekend back¬packer destination.

Around the lake, geologic history is written in the rocks. Lakeside granite slabs offer flat spots for sunning and picnicking. Near the lake are curious erratics: ice-transported boulders that were left here when the glaciers melted. Make your way to the far end of the lake and gaze westward for a bird’s eye view of Tenaya Lake, located just a mile away.

For those hikers looking for a longer return route, I heartily recommend returning to the JMT, ascending to Sunrise Camp and looping over and down to Tenaya Lake on Tioga Road. (Total distance is 13 miles for the day) In summer, the park’s shuttle bus service links the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead and Tenaya Lake.

Hike On.
John McKinney,
The Trailmaster

Interested in more hikes in Yosemite? Check out my “HIKE Yosemite Pocket Guide”