Yosemite is that magical place in California where dramatic mountains, granite peaks, and alpine mountain lakes all exist within the same wilderness.
Yosemite is a bucket list destination that offers incredible hiking trails and many overnight backpacking experiences as well.
I recently completed my first-ever solo backpacking trip and what better place to do that than Yosemite National Park! For my solo trip, I chose the Cathedral Lakes Trail which is a beginner-friendly backpacking route.
Many people also day hike to Cathedral Lakes because backpacking permits for this trail can be hard to come by.
If you’re planning to hike or backpack the Cathedral Lakes Trail in Yosemite, here is our guide covering everything you need to know:
- Quick Trail Overview
- Trail Description
- Wilderness Permits
- Where To Park
- What To Bring
- Water Sources
- When To Go
- Photography Tips
Quick Trail Overview
Before we dive into details, here is a quick overview of the Cathedral Lakes Trail in Yosemite:
- Trail Name: Cathedral Lakes Trail
- Length: Around 9 miles out and back to visit both lakes
- Trail Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Change: 1550 feet
- Dogs allowed? No
- Where To Camp: At either Lower or Upper Cathedral Lake (a wilderness permit is required to camp in Yosemite’s backcountry)
Cathedral Lakes Trail is one of the easiest and most popular hiking trails in Yosemite National Park. This is a straightforward trail that visits two stunning alpine lakes with an option for overnight camping at both of them.
The Cathedral Lakes hike starts at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead off Tioga Road. This is a trail that’s best done in the middle of the summer because Tioga Road closes between November to May/June due to snow.
The trailhead is easy to spot off Tioga Road and follows a narrow path directly into the forest. The beginning section of this hike is very rocky and has multiple side trails so I recommend using an offline hiking app like AllTrails to make sure you stay on the right path.
The first two miles of the Cathedral Lakes Trail are the hardest and gain nearly 1000 feet in elevation. But once you make it up this steep section, the trail flattens out for a bit giving hikers a much-needed break.
There are two lakes that you can visit along this route – the Lower Cathedral Lake and the Upper Cathedral Lake.
Most people make it to the Lower Cathedral Lake and head back not even realizing that there is a second lake just around the corner. I recommend checking out the hiking route on AllTrails which shows the location of both lakes and how to get there.
There is no reception along Tioga Road so it’s best to head out there prepared and familiar with the route.
The trail to Cathedral Lakes is around 7 miles long round trip. There is an option to go on a loop around Lower Cathedral Lake so you end up doing around 9+ miles altogether.
Although the beginning of the Cathedral Lakes Trail is not very exciting and travels through a forest, you will start seeing granite domes halfway in. The higher you go, the better the views will get.
Around 2.8 miles in you will reach a junction. Go left to visit the Upper Cathedral Lake or go right to visit the Lower Cathedral Lake. Or you can visit both which is what I did on my backpacking trip.
The Upper Cathedral Lake is a bit smaller and is currently undergoing a restoration project that prevents hikers from accessing most of the lake. There is a trail that travels to the back end and has a small path that goes down to the lakefront.
Once you visit Upper Cathedral Lake you can make your way back to Lower Cathedral Lake and set up camp, if you’re staying overnight.
If you have the time, I recommend checking out the trail that loops around the entire Lower Cathedral Lake. You get much better views from the other side of the lake than you do from the arrival point where most people end up hanging out.
Once I made it to Lower Cathedral Lake, I set up camp on the west shore and was happy to leave my heavy backpack to explore the area and get ready for dinner.
Just as I was about to call it a day and head into my tent for the night, the entire mountain range lit up with golden light that later turned into a colorful sunset. After sunset, I ventured back to my campsite where I settled in and waited for a potential rainstorm which never arrived.
In the morning I was woken up by a group of deer that passed by my tent. After eating a quick breakfast, I started making my way back out before it got too hot and crowded. On the first day, I was mostly climbing uphill so on the second way it was mostly downhill and I was back to my car within a couple of hours.
Although you won’t get those dramatic valley views on this hike, Cathedral Lakes was one of my favorite trails that I’ve done in Yosemite, especially for being my first solo backpacking trip. The views of the lakes are simply stunning and the route isn’t overly long or difficult.
If you’re planning to day hike the Cathedral Lakes Trail (which most people do), you don’t need an overnight wilderness permit. But if you plan to backpack and camp by Cathedral Lakes, you will need to obtain an overnight Yosemite backpacking permit ahead of time.
Yosemite wilderness permits are getting harder to obtain especially in the past few years. While previously we used to show up at Yosemite and see what walk-in permits were available for that day, now all wilderness permits have to be reserved online ahead of time. This means that you will need to do a little more planning before your trip.
Here is the process to reserve a Yosemite Wilderness Permit online:
Step 1. Check For Available Dates
Before you reserve your Wilderness Permit, you will need to see what dates are available for the route that you plan to backpack. You can check available dates on the Yosemite Trailhead Report page.
- For the area select “Tuolumne Meadows (East of May Lake)“
- For entry trailhead select “Cathedral Lakes”
This will show the dates and available permits to backpack the Cathedral Lakes Trail. You may notice that the dates cut off in mid-October. After October Tioga Road becomes inaccessible until May or June.
If the permit number is 0, that means there are no more permits left for that day. But sometimes extra permits get released so it doesn’t hurt to check this report periodically. That is how I was able to score last-minute permits for Cathedral Lakes Trail.
Step 2. Submit A Yosemite Wilderness Permit Request Form
If there are spots available, the next step is to submit a request for a backpacking permit.
You will need to fill out several fields:
- Number of people in your group: Depends on how many spots are available and how many people you want to bring
- Hike Start Date: Whichever day you choose from the available dates
- Starting Trailhead Region: Tuolumne Meadows (East of May Lake)
- Trailhead Entry: Cathedral Lakes
- 1st Night’s Camp Location: Either Lower Cathedral Lake or Upper Cathedral Lake
- Hike End Date: The date you plan to come back out
- Ending Trailhead Region: Tuolumne Meadows (East of May Lake)
- Trailhead Ending: Cathedral Lakes
- Trip Leader Contact Information: Your contact information
Once everything is filled out, click submit and within a few days, you will receive an email confirming (or denying) your reservation for a Yosemite Wilderness Permit.
Step 3. Submit Payment
Once your permit has been confirmed, you have 48 hours to process the payment for it. The cost is $5 for the permit base fee and $5 for each person (so a permit for two people costs $15).
If you don’t pay this fee within 48 hours of the email, your reservation will be canceled – so don’t put it off until the last minute! Once you pay the fee, you will receive a payment confirmation email.
Step 4. Print Or Download Your Permit Reservation Email
Before you head out to Yosemite you will need to print or download your wilderness permit reservation email.
You will need to present the reservation email to the ranger at the gate to enter Yosemite National Park.
Anyone visiting Yosemite in the summer needs to have a reservation now (even day visitors).
At the entrance gate, you will also need to pay the $35 entrance fee. I personally have the Annual Park Pass which costs $80 but allows you to visit any US National Park for a year. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, it’s a pretty good deal. My pass for this year already has paid itself off within a couple of local trips.
Step 5. Pick Up Your Permit At The Yosemite Wilderness Center
Phew! You’re almost done! The last step is to pick up your physical backpacking permit and parking permit at the Yosemite Wilderness Center in Yosemite Valley.
The Wilderness Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm so plan accordingly especially if you’re coming from far away. I got there in the afternoon and it was enough time to get briefed by the rangers on Leave No Trace principles, pick up my permit and drive 1.5 hours to the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead.
You can pick up your permit the day before your backpacking trip, or the morning of your trip by 10:00 am.
I know this sounds like a lot of information, but if you plan ahead of time and give yourself plenty of time to prepare, it won’t feel too overwhelming. Just make sure to read all of your emails and guidelines because they sometimes change from year to year.
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There are many beautiful campsites to choose from at Cathedral Lakes if you plan to stay there overnight. Most day hikers clear out around 4 pm to hike out and drive back to Yosemite Valley before the sun goes down.
When I camped at Cathedral Lakes, I only saw a few other overnight campers and it felt so serene and secluded. Plus, we were rewarded with an incredible sunset which you might not get to see if you’re only doing the day hike.
If you have an overnight Wilderness Permit for Cathedral Lakes, you can camp at either the Upper Cathedral Lake or Lower Cathedral Lake.
Lower Cathedral Lake has more campsite choices all around the lake so this is where I stayed. During my trip, Upper Cathedral Lake was undergoing a restoration project so most of it was inaccessible.
To find a campsite take the trail that loops around the entire Lower Cathedral Lake. I found a pretty great spot in between trees that sheltered me from cold wind and a potential rainstorm that night. You will find most of the tree-covered campsites along the West and North shores of the lake.
When picking a camping site, be sure to set up your tent in a flat, established area. DO NOT create a new site by disturbing growing vegetation or meadows.
Tip: If you need somewhere to stay the night before your backpacking trip, Yosemite Village has a designated area for backpackers next to the North Pines Campground.
It costs $6 per person to stay at the Backpacker’s Campground and you can pay this fee in cash upon arrival. You don’t need a special reservation to stay there – your backpacking permit allows you to say at this campground one night before your trip and one night after your trip.
Where To Park
For hiking the Cathedral Lakes Trail, you can park along Tioga Road next to the trailhead. Unfortunately, there isn’t a designated parking lot and you will have to park on the shoulder wherever you can find a spot.
I decided to stay at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead overnight to hike the trail early in the morning. I was able to move my campervan closer to the trees but I could feel it rock all night from cars passing by.
As an alternative option, the Porcupine Creek Trailhead is a 20-minute drive from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead and has a small parking lot. You can try to find a spot there if you need somewhere to sleep.
If you plan to leave your car at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead while you’re backpacking, make sure to leave your parking pass visible on the windshield. You will also need to remove any food & scented items from your car and place them in the bear lockers at the trailhead.
What To Bring
I hiked the Cathedral Lakes Trail in mid-June and the weather was just perfect. It wasn’t too hot during the day and the night temperatures stayed above freezing.
If you’re wondering what essentials you should bring, here is the packing list for my solo backpacking trip to Cathedral Lakes!
My favorite ultralight tent for overnight trips like this is the MSR Carbon Reflex 2.
We have written a detailed post on why it’s one of the best tents for backpacking but essentially, it’s extremely easy to set up, it is surprisingly roomy inside, and it is the lightest tent that I’ve ever used.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 weighs just under 2 pounds so it’s the tent I use for backcountry trips when shedding any weight possible will help make the hike faster and more enjoyable. This is especially important on solo trips where you’re carrying all the weight by yourself instead of splitting it between two people.
I’m not a very good sleeper when it comes to camping and backpacking trips, but one thing that has recently made a huge difference for me is using a blow-up sleeping pad for an extra cushion between me and the ground.
In the past, we used roll-up sleeping pads that took up a lot of room and didn’t make it that much more comfortable. After switching to a blow-up sleeping pad, I am now getting much better sleep when camping on hard surfaces.
Tip: Be sure to get an inflatable camping pillow for extra comfort!
Cathedral Lakes are located above 9000 feet in elevation so it can get cold up in the mountains.
For sleeping bags, I love the Co-Op Magma 15 from REI. It keeps me warm during backpacking trips, it compresses super small, it’s easy to pack up, and doesn’t weigh too much. Overall, it’s a pretty versatile sleeping bag so you can use it in all types of conditions from beach camping to high mountain hikes – perfect for California!
For backcountry trips, I have a 65 L pack that is a great heavy-duty beginner/intermediate pack. It is made of durable materials and has plenty of space to pack everything for a 2-3 day backpacking trip including a bear canister and cold-weather clothing.
But my pack is on the heavier side to accommodate the extra room and a sturdier frame to distribute the weight better. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, I suggest going with an ultralight backpack like the REI Flash 55 Pack which is highly customizable and weighs only 2 lbs.
On a long hiking or backpacking trip having a good pair of hiking boots is essential. There is nothing worse than a pair of boots that are too small, rub your feet or cause blisters. I highly recommend getting a pair of over-the-ankle boots like these Vasque ones.
On this trail, there will be sections that go over rocks, up steep hills, across tree roots, and creeks. Over-the-ankle boots prevent your ankles from rolling and potentially getting injured when your feet become tired.
I use a small camping stove on backpacking trips to make meals. It works pretty great and it can make quick dinners, oatmeal, and coffee in just a few minutes. Note that you’ll need to buy the gas canister separately but you can get one on Amazon or at most outdoor stores.
Recently, I also started dehydrating backpacking snacks. My favorite snacks to dehydrate are fruit, especially bananas, kiwis, and apples. It’s the perfect little treat on the trail and adds a bit more flavor to breakfast oatmeal.
Read Next: How To Dehydrate Fruit The Easy Way
To backpack in Yosemite, you will need to buy or rent a bear canister. We usually go on multiple backpacking trips a year so we finally dished out the money to purchase the BearVault BV500 canister.
If you’re new to backpacking, you can also rent a bear canister from Yosemite Wilderness Center for $5 per week (plus a deposit).
The weather during my Yosemite backpacking trip in June was pretty great the entire time. Your packing list might change depending on the season, but here are a few things that I recommend to bring clothing-wise:
- Shorts. It’s usually warm in Yosemite during the summer months so I recommend wearing shorts during the day.
- Leggings. It cooled down towards the evening so I changed into a pair of leggings for sleeping at night.
- Warm Jacket. I always pack a long thermal top and a jacket for overnight trips to the mountains.
- Hiking socks. You’ll want to wear a good pair of hiking socks that won’t rub blisters on your feet and won’t make your feet sweat. I personally like the Darn Tough merino wool socks. Make sure to bring a couple of pairs in case your feet get wet.
- A hiking hat & polarized sunglasses to help with the sun during the day.
- Beanie & gloves if the temperatures at night drop to near freezing.
- Mineral sunscreen. It’s easy to get sunburned while hiking in the mountains, even on shaded trails like this one. For outdoor trips, I use the Thinksport mineral sunscreen which is ocean-friendly and free of toxic ingredients.
- Mosquito repellant. This trail has a lot of bugs and mosquitos so a mosquito repellant is a must. I got a small travel-size repellant that is perfect for backpacking trips.
- Wipes to clean off dust and dirt at the end of the day but don’t worry – hot showers are available in Yosemite Valley at the end of the hike.
- Backpacking trowel to go to the bathroom in the wilderness.
- To-go toilet paper. Note that all toilet paper used in the wilderness needs to be packed and carried out – do not bury it.
- Travel toothbrush & natural toothpaste
- Headlamp for when it gets dark
- Battery charger to keep your phone charged
- First aid kit for emergencies, cuts & blisters
- Advil in case you start feeling pain from the hike
- Small trash bag to carry out any trash
Carrying a lot of water can add extra weight, especially for overnight wilderness trips. Thankfully finding water sources along the Cathedral Lakes Trail is not an issue and you can replenish water directly from pristine alpine lakes.
For my backpacking trip, I brought several bottles of water to last me the 3-mile trek up to the lakes. Once I got to Cathedral Lakes, I was able to refill my bottles.
If you plan to drink the lake water you will need a water filter because the water in the wilderness needs to be filtered before it’s consumed.
I have been using the Sawyer Filter for years now and it does the job well. The Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System also comes with several water pouches that you can use for water storage.
When To Go
To get to the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead you will need to drive on Tioga Road which is only accessible during the summer months. Tioga Road is closed from fall to spring (November to May/June) so the Cathedral Lakes Trail becomes inaccessible.
The best time to hike and backpack the Cathedral Lakes Trail is during the warmer summer months when the weather is near perfect.
I backpacked this trail in June and it was in the ’70s during the day and mid-’30s at night.
A backpacking trip to Yosemite is one of the cheapest ways to visit this National Park but there are still certain costs associated with a backcountry trip:
- Entrance Pass. The current fee to enter Yosemite National Park is $35 per car.
- Backpacking Permit. My backpacking permit cost me $10 to camp at Cathedral Lakes for one night.
- Backpackers Campground. If you plan to stay at the Backpackers Campground in Yosemite Valley the night before or after your trip, it costs $6 per person to camp there.
- Food. I usually spend around $50-$100 on backpacking food, toiletries, and other supplies for wilderness trips. If you forget something, there is a market in Yosemite Valley that sells backpacking items like dry meals, snacks, and water.
- Bear Canister. If you don’t own a bear canister, you can rent one from Yosemite’s Wilderness Center for $5 per week (plus a deposit). I have the BearVault BV500 canister that fits everything I need for overnight trips.
Without a doubt, visiting Yosemite is any travel photographer’s dream. The best thing about backpacking trips in Yosemite is that you get to stay in the wilderness and experience it all by yourself – a rare treat for one of the most visited parks in the US!
Staying at these hard-to-get-to locations also grants you access to unique photography settings that other people don’t get to experience, like sunrises and sunsets when photography lighting is at its best.
While this trail starts a bit slow, once you reach Cathedral Lakes, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for amazing photography, especially at sunset.
The best photography angles of Lower Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak can be captured from the other side of the lake.
I recommend walking around the entire lake because in some areas the water was very calm creating the perfect reflection of Cathedral Peak in the water.
Tip: The camera’s batteries can deplete much faster in altitude and cold weather than usual. If you plan to bring your camera, I recommend packing a portable battery charger to charge your camera.
Whether you’re planning for a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip, we hope this post has inspired you to visit the stunning Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite.
Looking for more Yosemite travel inspiration? Here are a few other popular posts that you may enjoy:
- Amazing Things To Do In Yosemite For First-Time Visitors
- 20 Amazing Places To Stay Near Yosemite National Park
- Guide To Visiting Yosemite National Park In The Winter
- Visiting Yosemite In October & November For Fall Colors
- Staying At Curry Village Tent Cabins In Yosemite
Can’t decide which hike to do in Yosemite? Be sure to check out these posts below that cover some of our favorite Yosemite hiking routes:
- 10 Best Day Hikes In Yosemite That Should Be On Your List
- How To Hike Mirror Lake Trail In Yosemite National Park
- Hiking Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias Trail In Yosemite
- Hiking Yosemite Valley Loop Trail In California
- Backpacking North Dome Trail In Yosemite
- How To Backpack The Eagle Peak Trail In Yosemite
Interested in stepping up your photography game? Here is the camera gear that I carry everywhere I go to create amazing travel photos:
- Main camera: Sony a7c Camera. The Sony a7c is tiny, light, full-frame, and durable – in other words, amazing!
- Polarizer Filter: Hoya 40.5 mm Filter. Polarizing filters reduce glare in water, protect the lens from getting scratched and bring out the best colors when it’s bright outside. Having a polarizing filter is a must-have if you plan to photograph lakes, oceans, rivers, and waterfalls.
- Wide Lens: Sony 16-35 mm F4. Great for capturing wide panoramas, nature landscapes, and cramped city streets. Mounts to any Sony mirrorless camera and features autofocus, image stabilization, and incredibly sharp images.
- Lightweight Travel Tripod: Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod. A good tripod is essential for capturing images in low light conditions, such as during sunset and sunrise, or creating smooth water effects when shooting waterfalls. The Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod is very sturdy, light, and folds small so you can take it on all of your adventures!
- Memory Cards: SanDisk Extreme 256 GB. It’s always good to bring a few extra memory cards on trips. SanDisk Extreme is ultra-fast for capturing high-quality images, bursts, long exposure night shots, and 4k videos. This memory card is also durable and reliable yet very affordable.
- Camera Batteries: Wasabi Power Battery Set. I’ve made the mistake of getting to a location to realize my camera is out of battery. Always keep your batteries charged with this camera charger set.
- Camera Bag: Lowepro adventure shoulder bag. A camera bag is something you should definitely invest in! Without having a proper place to store it I would get my camera scratched, sandy, or even occasionally drop it.
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