Cathedral Peak is an outstanding granite pinnacle in the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park. It looks good from all sides, has expansive views from its class 4 summit block, and the SE Buttress is considered a classic climbing route. John Muir made the first ascent of Cathedral Peak in 1869, possibly the first class 4 climb to be made anywhere in the Sierra.
The SE Buttress is an extremely popular route among climbers despite the three mile approach hike, and there is often a line to climb it on weekends. Even during weekdays it is climbed by several parties each day during the summer months.
The peak can be climbed without gear via the Mountaineers Route on the east side, or from the west side. The summit block is rated class 4, a moderate crack with excellent holds, and only about 15 feet high. The summit has enough room to hold four or five climbers if they're friendly, though in the past the Sierra Club used to get a dozen members on top at the same time. There used to be a solid anchor installed on top that could be used for rappelling or just for safety for those not comfortable with the exposure. The two bolts were chopped sometime during the summer of 2001, reportedly by YOSAR. Without the bolts the summit can still be protected fairly easily with a few cams. The last person down can be belayed from below by someone stationed on the west side of the summit block. Then flip the rope over the block when down - be careful not to get the rope stuck in the process, or you'll have to climb back up to retrieve it (as I did the first time I tried this manuever).
The summit register has long disappeared, and no new one seems forthcoming due to the excessive popularity of this peak (so don't waste time like we did looking for one!)
If you have time following a climb of Cathedral Peak, a climb of Eichorn Pinnacle via the North Face should not be missed.
A note about the class ratings: Early routes that are rated class 4 are usually indistinguishable from 5.easy. Secor has a short section on this, describing the early 1936 and 1938 versions of the Sierra Club classifications that provided the roots for the Yosemite Decimal System widely used in the US today. In it, he comments, "A 1936 class 4 covers everything from class 4 to 5.6 today." and "A 1938 class 4 would be class 4 to 5.4 today." Cathedral Peak was almost certainly rated in one of these early systems. And of course, in keeping with tradition, ratings are rarely changed once assigned - which is why it's important to know something about when and who first rated a route.
The easiest approach is via the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows. From either the east or west, take Highway 120 into Yosemite NP and drive to Tuolumne Meadows. The trailhead is located on the west end of the meadow, about a mile west of the visitor center. It is a very busy locale and there are usually a dozen or more cars parked there at any given time during the summer.
To approach the west side of Cathedral Peak take the JMT south towards Cathedral Lake for about 3.5 miles. Before you reach the lakes, Cathedral and Eichorn Peaks will loom high on the eastern skyline.
The approach for the popular SE Buttress (and Mountaineers Route) follows the Budd Creek drainage. There is a fine use trail that can be taken - see the SE Buttress page for details.
Permits are not required for day hikes, but Wilderness permits are required for overnight visits. These can be obtained from any ranger station in the park. The nearest location is the permit building just east of the Tuolmne Meadows campground. It is just off the road that leads to the Tuolumne Lodge, on the right hand side.
Because of the camping restrictions on all sides of this peak, it is almost always climbed as a day hike.
Climbing is generally done May-Oct. Before and after this time Highway 120 is closed. There can be much snow on the ground in May and June, so check ahead and plan accordingly if you intend to climb at this time. Late in October the highway is often open but closed to overnight parking - dayhikes to Cathedral Peak can still be done easily. Even in early season when there is much snow on the ground, Cathedral can be approached on snowshoes without much difficulty. The SE buttress is generally free of snow when the road opens in May, so the climbing can be quite nice (and less crowded!).
Camping is not allowed in the Budd Creek drainage on Cathedral's east side, nor within 4 miles of the trailhead. If you take the JMT on the west side, you can camp at Cathedral Lakes which just puts you past the 4 mile limit. Be aware that this a popular trailhead, and quotas fill very early. You should plan to be at the Wilderness office in Tuolmne Meadows when it first opens if you want a chance at a permit. With these restrictions most folks climb Cathedral as a day hike.
You can also camp south of Cathedral Pass, but there is little water nearby for most of the year. Later in the summer, the nearest water on that side of the pass can be found at Echo Lake. This is a nice site if you plan to climb other peaks in the area such as Matthes Crest, Tresidder Peak, or Echo Peaks. Be aware of that this is a popular campsite for both people and bears. Be sure to take proper precautions to keep your food in your possession.
"The peak was named in 1862 by Henry G. Hanks, James Hutchings, and Captain Corcoran, representatives of the San Carlos Mining and Exploration Company, while on a trip to the mines near Independence. The peak had first been designated as Cathedral Spires, but the Whitney Survey changed the name to Cathedral Peak. Cathedral Spires and Rocks are now the names of the rock formations opposite El Capitan in Yosemite Valley."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
"The peak was named by the California Geological Survey in 1863. 'From a high ridge, crossed just before reaching this lake [Tenaya], we had a fine view of a very prominent exceedingly grand landmark through all the region, and to which the name of Cathedral Peak has been given ... the majesty of its form and its dimensions are such, that any work of human hands would sink into insignificance if placed beside it.' (Whitney, Geology, 425.)
First ascent by John Muir, September 7, 1869."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
John Muir's route took him up the "Mountaineer's Route", Class 3 until the summit block which is Class 4:
"September 7. --Left camp at daybreak and made direct for Cathedral Peak, intending to strike eastward and southward from that point among the peaks and ridges at the heads of the Tuolumne, Merced, and San Joaquin rivers. Down through the pine woods I made my way, across the Tuolumne River and meadows, and up the heavily timbered slope forming the south boundary of the upper Tuolumne basin, along the east side of Cathedral Peak, and up to its topmost spire, which I reached at noon, having loitered by the way to study the fine trees, --two-leaved pine, mountain pine, albicaulis pine, silver fir, and the most charming, most graceful of all the evergreens, the mountain hemlock. High, cool, late-flowering meadows also detained me, and lakelets and avalanche tracks and huge quarries of moraine rocks above the forests.
All the way up from the Big Meadows to the base of the Cathedral the ground is covered with moraine material, the left lateral moraine of the great glacier that must have completely filled this upper Tuolumne basin. Higher there are several small terminal moraines of residual glaciers shoved forward at right angles against the grand simple lateral of the main Tuolumne Glacier. A fine place to study mountain sculpture and soil making. The view from the Cathedral Spires is very fine and telling in every direction. Innumerable peaks, ridges, domes, meadows, lakes, and woods; the forests extending in long curving lines and broad fields wherever the glaciers have left soil for them to grow on, while the sides of the highest mountains show a straggling dwarf growth clinging to Glacier Meadow Strewn with Moraine Boulders, 10,000 Feet above the Sea (near Mt. Dana) rifts in the rocks apparently independent of soil. The dark heath-like growth on the Cathedral roof I found to be dwarf snow-pressed albicaulis pine, about three or four feet high, but very old looking. Many of them are bearing cones, and the noisy Clarke crow is eating the seeds, using his long bill like a woodpecker in digging them out of the cones. A good many flowers are still in bloom about the base of the peak, and even on the roof among the little pines, especially a woody yellow-flowered eriogonum and a handsome aster. The body of the Cathedral is nearly square, and the roof slopes are wonderfully regular and symmetrical, the ridge trending northeast and southwest. This direction has apparently been determined by structure joints in the granite. The gable on the northeast end is magnificent in size and simplicity, and at its base there is a big snow-bank protected by the shadow of the building. The front is adorned with many pinnacles and a tall spire of curious workmanship. Here too the joints in the rock are seen to have played an important part in determining their forms and size and general arrangement. The Cathedral is said to be about eleven thousand feet above the sea, but the height of the building itself above the level of the ridge it stands on is about fifteen hundred feet. A mile or so to the westward there is a handsome lake, and the glacier-polished granite about it is shining so brightly it is not easy in some places to trace Front of Cathedral Peak the line between the rock and water, both shining alike. Of this lake with its silvery basin and bits of meadow and groves I have a fine view from the spires; also of Lake Tenaya, Cloud's Rest, and the South Dome of Yosemite, Mt. Starr King, Mt. Hoffman, the Merced peaks, and the vast multitude of snowy fountain peaks extending far north and south along the axis of the range. No feature, however, of all the noble landscape as seen from here seems more wonderful than the Cathedral itself, a temple displaying Nature's best masonry and sermons in stones. How often I have gazed at it from the tops of hills and ridges, and through openings in the forests on my many short excursions, devoutly wondering, admiring, longing! This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper. In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars. And lo, here at last in front of the Cathedral is blessed cassiope, ringing her thousands of sweet-toned bells, the sweetest church music I ever enjoyed. Listening, admiring, until late in the afternoon I compelled myself to hasten away eastward back of rough, sharp, spiry, splintery peaks, all of them granite like the Cathedral, sparkling with crystals, --feldspar, quartz, hornblende, mica, tourmaline. Had a rather difficult walk and creep across an immense snow and ice cliff which gradually increased in steepness as I advanced until it was almost impassable. Slipped on a dangerous place, but managed to stop by digging my heels into the thawing surface just on the brink of a yawning ice gulf. Camped beside a little pool and a group of crinkled dwarf pines; and as I sit by the fire trying to write notes the shallow pool seems fathomless with the infinite starry heavens in it, while the onlooking rocks and trees, tiny shrubs and daisies and sedges, brought forward in the fire-glow, seem full of thought as if about to speak aloud and tell all their wild stories. A marvelously impressive meeting in which every one has something worth while to tell. And beyond the fire-beams out in the solemn darkness, how impressive is the music of a choir of rills singing their way down from the snow to the river! And when we call to mind that thousands of these rejoicing rills are assembled in each one of the main streams, we wonder the less that our Sierra rivers are songful all the way to the sea.
About sundown saw a flock of dun grayish sparrows going to roost in crevices of a crag above the big snow-field. Charming little mountaineers! Found a species of sedge in flower within eight or ten feet of a snow-bank. Judging by the looks of the ground, it can hardly have been out in the sunshine much longer than a week, and it is likely to be buried again in fresh snow in a month or so, thus making a winter about ten months long, while spring, summer, and autumn are crowded and hurried into two months. How delightful it is to be alone here! How wild everything is, --wild as the sky and as pure! Never shall I forget this big, divine day, --the Cathedral and its thousands of cassiope bells, and the landscapes around them, and this camp in the gray crags above the woods, with its stars and streams and snow."
- John Muir My First Summer in the Sierra