If you can only manage one hike in Tuolumne, this should probably be it. Cathedral Lake (9588ft), the lower of the two Cathedral Lakes, sits within a mind-blowing glacial cirque, a perfect amphitheater of granite capped by the iconic spire of nearby Cathedral Peak (10,911ft). From the lake’s southwestern side, the granite drops steeply away, affording views as far as Tenaya Lake, whose blue waters shimmer in the distance.
Although it’s only about two hours to the lower lake, you could easily spend an entire day exploring the granite slopes, meadows and peaks surrounding it. Continuing to the upper lake (9585ft) adds less than an hour to the hike and puts the round-trip walk at 8 miles (five to seven hours total), including the stop at Cathedral Lake. Admittedly, the upper lake is less spectacular when measured against the lower lake, but by all other standards it’s utterly sublime.
Parking for the Cathedral Lake Trailhead is along the shoulder of Tioga Rd. Due to the popularity of this hike, parking spaces fill up fast, so arrive early or take the free shuttle. Camping is allowed at the lower lake (despite what some maps show), but be absolutely certain you’re 100ft from the water and the trail.
From the Cathedral Lake Trailhead on Tioga Rd, the hike heads southwest along the John Muir Trail. Almost immediately, it begins to climb through forest of lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and the occasional whitebark pine. After ascending over 400ft, the trail levels out and a massive slab of granite – the northern flank of Cathedral Peak – slopes up from the left side of the trail. Soon you’ll see Fairview Dome (9731ft) through the trees to your right.
Before long, the trail begins its second ascent, climbing nearly 600ft before leveling off and affording outstanding views of Cathedral Peak. Three miles from the trailhead, you’ll hit the junction that leads 0.5 miles southwest to Cathedral Lake. This trail crosses a stunning meadow (turn around as you cross it for the head-on view of Cathedral Peak) before arriving at the granite shores of the lake. Be sure to follow the trail around the lake and take in the views from the southwestern side.
To visit the upper lake, backtrack to the main trail, turn right (southeast) and, after about 0.5 miles, you’ll hit the lake. If you wish to stretch the hike out even further, you can continue past the upper lake to Cathedral Pass (9700ft), where you’ll be rewarded with a stellar side view of Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle (Cathedral’s fin-like western peak). This side trip adds about 0.6 miles to the trip.