Cathedral Lakes

A bear raiding the dumpster at the Motel 6

When we came back from Europe I still had two weeks before I had to go back to work. I really wanted to do something during that time, but there were a lot of options. I'll cover that in more detail in another post. I ended up choosing a trip to California, with a couple of days hiking in the Sierras and a Rush concert in Irvine for the Grand Finale.

There were still a lot of options for hiking in the Sierra. Usually I drive to Hawthorne, Nevada. From there it's easy to reach Yosemite National Park. It's also cheap to stay there. But since I had all day Sunday to drive and it's only eight hours to Hawthorne, that would leave me with a looooong evening. There isn't much to do there. So instead I decided to drive all the way to Mammoth Lakes. I've never been there and it would make a good base for exploring the Minarets, a part of the Sierra that I have always wanted to see. I figured if I backtracked a little way to Yosemite it wouldn't matter. I could also scout it out as a location for Sandy and I to use as a base for a future hiking trip.

The long, steep climb up to Tioga Pass

The trip to the Mammoth Lakes was straigtforward. It took nine and a half hours, just like Google Maps said it would, even with gas stops and lunch at McDonald's in Winnemucca. It definitely is feasible as a long weekend for later this year.

One problem did come up when I reached Winnemucca - the western sky was totally covered in smoke. I hadn't read about any major forest fires so I hadn't checked the website that I usually consult for info on smoke from forest fires when I am hiking in fire season. As I drove through Nevada, I went in and out of smoke. Obviously there were some big fires somewhere. When I reached Mammoth Lakes, it was quite smokey. I spent some time on the web and it looked like it might be clear to the north. So I decided that I'd do my first hike in Yosemite National Park along the Tioga Pass road. I really wanted to try Mount Dana, but I figured that I needed some acclimatization before trying a thirteen thousand foot peak. It's still on my list. Some day I will get up that mountain. This time I picked Cathedral Lakes as a moderate hike to start the trip. No sense burning out on the first day. I had some big plans for follow up hikes!

Mount Dana from near the entrance to the park

Mammoth Lakes had quite a few motels but many of them were pricey. I ended up picking Motel 6, even though I don't usually care for that chain. The good news was that when I checked in, the hotel was quite nice. They did nitpick on some silly little things to cut costs. There was no shampoo. There was an extra charge for internet access (really? in the twenty first century? in California of all places?). The check in process was really slow. But there was still a crowd at the office when I checked in and it looked like they filled the place up. Obviously price is the most important factor.

The front desk clerk emphasized to each person as they checked in that there were bears in the area. Don't leave food in your car. Ok, kind of silly I thought, but I moved all my hiking sancks to my room.

After checking in I went across the street for dinner. There was not one, but two pizza places right across from the hotel. Clearly Mammoth Lakes was my kind of town. It was crowded but I had a good dinner at John's Pizzaworks. After dinner I read for a bit and then turned in.

Lots of granite - a shoulder of Cathedral Peak

I woke up at 5 am. In Boise it was 6 am, which is when Abby wakes me up to feed her breakfast. It took me a while to get going but I still left the hotel a little before six. Sure enough, as I was driving out, there was a bear raiding one of the hotel dumpsters. I took a couple of pictures from the car. It seemed like the bear had emptied most of the garbage out onto the ground but he was still digging in the dumpster. Finally he grabbed a big garbage bag full of treasure and took off. But I did manage to get a couple of good shots before he left.

It took about an hour to drive to the trailhead. There was no traffic until I got on the Tioga Pass road, when I got stuck behind a trailer. The road is enough of a pain when you aren't behind someone who is literally crawling up the mountain. But I reached the trailhead, found a place to park, and was ready to go at 7 am.

Earlier in the month, in the Alps, our problem had been that it was too hot. Not today. My car said the temperature at the trailhead as I started out was thirty two degrees. Or rather, zero degrees C. But there was no wind, so it really didn't seem that cold. I put on my long sleeve shirt and my warm hat and gloves and I was comfortable once I got on the trail and started climbing. I didn't even bother taking my GoreTex parka out of my pack. It seemed to warm up quickly and after the first hour I had taken off my long sleeve shirt and my hat and gloves and was comfortable hiking in just a tshirt.

A bright, clear morning at Upper Cathedral Lake

The trail started out in the woods without any views. There was a steep climb, then a short drop, level, then another steep climb. I did get one view of the backside of Catherdral Peak, but mostly it was just hiking in the woods. Still, it was cool and I was just glad to be hiking. At about three miles there was a junction with a spur trail to the lower Cathedral Lake. I wanted to visit both but I decided to start with the upper. From the junction it was only a half mile to another spur trail that took me to the shore of Upper Cathedral Lake.

Where I reached the lake there were some backpackers just packing up their camp. They were the first people I had seen. The lake was pretty, with granite cliffs across the way. The best view was behind me, where Cathedral Peak rose above the lake. I walked part way around the lake to get a view of the peak looking across the water, but since it was into the sun I didn't expect great photos. I found a nice granite slab to lie on and enjoy the view. After a while I heard loud splashes. A backpacker was taking a morning swim about a hundred yards down the lakeshore. I didn' check but I am willing to bet that the water was really cold!

Morning swim - he's tougher than I am

Eventually I started back. At the junction I took the trail to the lower lake, which unfortunately dropped several hundred feet, altitude that I wasn't excited about having to regain. Then it was farther than I expected to reach the lake, which was larger than the upper lake and surrounded on all sides by granite slabs. There were a few parties camped along the shore. In the far distance I could see Mt. Hoffmann, a peak that I had climbed with Tim and Mickey on a trip to Yosemite way back in 1999.

The hike back wasn't bad. Even the climb back to the main trail seemed pretty easy. I was feeling good. The weather was pleasantly cool. There were no bugs. On the way back, there were a lot of hikers coming up. It was warmer for them hiking uphill later in the day, especially since a lot of them were backpackers with heavy packs. Even though I am not a morning person I prefer an early start to hike when it is cool and before the bugs come out.

Cathedral Peak from the Cathedral Lakes trail

Back at the trailhead I forgot to turn off my GPS, so I don't have accurate mileage for the trail. It was about nine miles with over 1600 feet of elevation gain. A good start to the hiking trip, especially since I didn't even feel tired at the end. Although the scenery had not been spectacular, it was pretty. And there is someting special about hiking in Yosemite National Park. It was the first national park in America and it was the first place I did any real hiking and where I climbed Half Dome, my first major mountain. So it was an excellent hike.

I made a quick stop at the Tuolumne Meadows Store for a cold Coke, which really tasted good. Across the way was a great view of Lembert Dome, and there was a painter there hard at work capturing the scene. Then it was time to drive back to Mammoth Lakes. If the trails were busier midday than when I started in the early morning, the roads were even worse. As I was leaving the park there was a line of cars stopped waiting to get out. A ranger was holding them back. Every minute or so, a car would enter the park via our lane, driving on the wrong side of the road. After about five minutes they finally let us through. I stopped and asked the ranger if I needed to pay since I had come in before the station was open. "Are you coming back?" "No" "Then have a nice day, sir." I thought that was pretty nice of him, to let me leave without paying. Then I pulled out and saw why. The line of cars waitning to come into the park stretched out of sight. That's why they had been using both sides of the road to let people in. As I drove down the road, the line of cars stretched back a full mile. Now getting up at 5 am didn't seem like such a strange idea!

I was back at Mammoth Lakes by early afternoon. I had plenty of time to clean up, get a late lunch/early dinner, and to check out the approach for tomorrow's hike. A good hike to start the trip.