Imagine a place where lake and sky shimmer in breathtaking blue. Where gin-clear streams gently tumble into the greenest of meadows. Contained in a saucer of smooth, white granite.
Such a place exists. Found in a slice of Yosemite paradise surrounding Cathedral Peak.
A sharply hewn fang of Sierra granite, Cathedral Peak can be seen from Tuolumne Meadows. But its true grandeur only can be appreciated from up close, or from nearby Cathedral Lakes.
Begin hiking from a signed trailhead along Tioga Pass Road, making sure to leave all extra food in the provided bear boxes and not in your car. Because of this area's popularity among backpackers and climbers, it's best to get an early start.
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Like many in Yosemite, the Cathedral Lakes Trail has been ravaged by stock use. Still, this does little to detract from the experience.
In its first 2.5 miles, the trail makes two moderate climbs until reaching a forested saddle at the base of Cathedral Peak. The peak's needle-like summit, however, remains hidden from view.
Following a gradual descent, the trail reaches a junction at 3.1 miles. Take the right fork to Lower Cathedral Lake, hopping over creeks and sauntering through wide-open meadows.
After 0.5 miles, the trail terminates at Lower Cathedral Lake, where broad, granite slabs offer unreal views of Cathedral Peak and other landmarks such as Tenaya Peak and Mt. Hoffman.
Kicking back on the warm granite produces sensory overload. You feel as if you're at the bottom of a giant stone saucer.
Soak up the splendor for a while, then retrace your steps to the main trail and continue hiking another 0.7 miles to Upper Cathedral Lake, where the scenery is almost as spectacular.
Most hikers simply turn around here, heading back to the trailhead via the main trail. But for an intimate view of Cathedral Peak, leave the trail at the upper lake and head northeast toward sparsely timbered Cathedral Saddle.
The climb toward Cathedral Saddle is moderate, no more than 400 feet above Upper Cathedral Lake. Even though there's no trail, it's nearly impossible to get lost because of all the landmarks.
Upon reaching the saddle, the full impact of Cathedral Peak hits you square in the face. Its sheer, weathered walls evoke a sense of awe and reverence. More often than not, you'll be able to see (and hear) climbing parties picking their way toward the summit.
From here, the easiest way back is to follow an unmaintained "use" trail that originates from Budd Lake (visible from the saddle) and follows Budd Creek to Tuolumne Meadows. This trail does not appear on most maps but is frequently used by climbers.
Descend from Cathedral Saddle, crossing meadows and lodgepole pines until reaching Budd Creek. The trail is hard to follow at times but generally parallels the creek on its left (west) bank or above. Do not cross, even though signs of a trail appear on the opposite side.
After a while, the "use" trail meets the Cathedral Lakes Trail 600 yards above the parking lot. The entire loop, including a side-trip to Lower Cathedral Lake, is approximately 8.5 miles.
Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on July 17, 2003.