Backpacking off-trail in Yosemite from Budd Lake to Cathedral Lakes

Lake surrounded by tall grey mountains with snow, and a particularly pointy one right behind the lake
Budd Lake

Backpacking in Yosemite always felt sort of off limits to me because you have to get permits far in advance, but in fact a bunch of permits are released 2 weeks before the start date at 7am. I was considering a loop around the Vogelsang and Lyell Canyon area, but that permit ran out fast and the Budd Creek XC permit was one of the only ones left, so we took that one. I think that the cross-country permit means you're required to start on the cross-country trail as opposed to taking a different trail, such as the nearby Cathedral Lakes trail. Since the Cathedral Lakes permits are much more popular, this cross-country permits are a more attainable way to see this part of Yosemite.

Trip stats

Distance: 15.5 miles
Time: 3 days
Type: loop
Dates: 18 June 2022 - 20 June 2022
Elevation change: +/-3700
Permits required: yes
Bear cans required: yes

Our route was similar to this one.

Caltopo tracking map
Rough track of our route

Trail description

The trail begins near the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, which is where we parked. We picked up our permits from the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center, which is a little farther up the road. We didn't have time during this trip to explore the area but the Tuolumne Meadows area is very nice. The total length of the hike was about 15 miles, but going off trail made it feel longer. There isn't too much elevation gain on this hike, but we added some on the second day by hiking to the base of Echo Peaks. The Matthes Crest traverse is apparently a popular spot for climbing. It's also possible to get to the top of the Echo Peaks with some scrambling. This post details the Matthes Crest traverse and some of the Echo Peaks. This post details traversing all ~10 of the Echo Peaks. It would be cool to do one of these traverses sometime but it also looks very scary.

Day 1: Hiked from trailhead to Matthes Lake. The first section of this is a marked trail to Budd Lake. After Budd Lake the trail ends and you go over a ridge then down into the Matthes Lake area, which is flat and meadowy. We camped here.

Day 2: Followed the creek around to Echo Lake. We then hiked up to the base of Echo Peaks for the view. If not going to Echo Peaks, you can just follow the creek until it meets the JMT right before Upper Cathedral Lake. We walked around Upper Cathedral Lake and then continued to Lower Cathedral Lake to camp.

Day 3: Short hike out to the trailhead.

Hiking log

Day 0: Drive to Yosemite

We drove up to Yosemite after work on Friday. We camped in the car in one of the dispersed camping spots along Evergreen Road just outside the West entrance of the park. There are a handful of turn-offs along the road. We saw some other groups camped here but we had no trouble finding a spot. We didn't have any sort of window covers for the car but there were no bugs, so it was fine with the windows cracked open. It's convenient to have this option for camping outside Yosemite with no planning required.

Day 1: Tuolumne Meadow to Matthes Lake

Pine trees and jagged rock mountains with some snow
Start of the trail

The next day we drove directly to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center to pick up our permits. I think the deadline for picking them up was 11am and we got there around then.  When we picked them up they asked if we were interested in a Cathedral Lakes permit, which means that maybe there were some available. There was a little store there so we bought some foods for breakfast. Then we drove back along Tioga Road, which was a dirt road at this part, to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center to park.

The trail starts at about 8600ft follows Budd Creek to Budd Lake, which is at 9900ft. The trail here is very well marked. Budd Lake is one of those lakes that looks pristine and nested at the bottom of a rocky mountain ridge. It would have been a nice spot to hang out for a while but unfortunately it was cold and windy and I wanted to move on.

After Budd Lake the trail ends. Our plan was to go over the ridge to Matthes Lake. We were vaguely following the track from a random AllTrails recording, but the ridge looked a bit different because this side of it was covered in snow.

Ryan facing the start of the off trail section over the ridge; the mountain looks like chunky white rocks

From the lake we could only really see up the first half of the ridge. The first half involved some scrambling but there was no snow yet and it wasn't too bad.

Looking back at Budd Lake
Ryan standing in a barren looking grey landscape.. the remaining part of the ridge is snowy

From here we could see the second half of the climb. This part was a little more sketchy. It was hard to tell which part would be the easiest to climb, as the top of the ridge appeared to be steep and covered in snow. At first we wanted to avoid areas with too much snow since it was steep and we didn't have any spikes for the snow and weren't sure how solid the snow would be around the boulders.

Luckily the snow was very sun cupped and very solid, which made it easier to walk up when it was steep. In some places you could tell that there was a big air gap between the snow and the boulders. We never fell through, though... In the end it wasn't too bad but at any point on the mountain we weren't really sure if it was possible to get to the top from the path we were on.

At one point we had to hop over this abyss. That felt a little treacherous. The top of the ridge had some really deep sun cups.

View over the top of the ridge; Matthes Crest is on the right over Matthes Lake
Over the ridge toward Matthes Lake and Matthes Crest

At the top of the ridge we could see Matthes Lake and the path looked smooth going from there, since this side was south-facing with no snow, and much less steep. Of course, still no trail on this side, but navigation was easy as we could literally see the lake and the terrain was unobstructed.

Finally we made it to the flat meadowy lake area. The whole ground was covered in green grass and marshy areas and little streams surrounding the lake.

It was still cold and windy here so we set up the tent quickly. We also somehow brought an empty fuel canister and I was very sad about not having cooked food. We probably ate cold ramen and snacks for dinner.

Day 2: Matthes Lake to Lower Cathedral Lake

Another flat lake in a green meadow; this lake is less blue more brown
Echo Lake

Because the hike from Matthes Lake to the Cathedral Lakes would have been extremely short and would have taken no more than a few hours, we added a little bit of climbing to the second day by going to the base of Echo Peaks. We considered that we might try to climb one of the actual Peaks but once we were up there I didn't really feel up to it and it looked scary.

A collection of pointy peaks
Echo Peaks

We sort of followed the creek to get to Echo Lake, but kept to the right before reaching the fork to avoid losing too much elevation. The Echo Lake area is very similar to Matthes Lake, with a large green meadow and creeks running through it. The creek runs straight down the valley with Echo Peaks and Cathedral Peak in the background. We took a break here to eat breakfast.

After Echo Lake, instead of following the Cathedral Fork stream to Cathedral Lakes, we followed a small fork of the stream up toward Echo Peaks. The terrain here was a mix of large granite rock and dirt patches. No snow here. It was a little steep but not nearly as bad as the ridge on the first day.

Narrow sandy trail going through sandy with little tufts of grass
A use trail near Echo Peaks

As we approached Echo Peaks we saw a narrow use trail, probably for people climbing Echo Peaks. From here the peaks looked maybe vaguely achievable, but still kind of far.

We ate peanut butter tortillas for lunch with some nice views of the surrouding area and mountains.

The descent was fairly straightforward and we then walked through a big meadow to meet up with the John Muir Trail. After so much off trail walking, with all the stepping over plants and scrambling up rocks and whatnot, it was a relief to be back on a real trail.

Bottom half of the image is all blue lake, Cathedral Peak is a jagged rock with two points
Cathedral Peak reflected in Upper Cathedral Lake

Short hike along the JMT to Upper Cathedral Lake, which is right next to the trail.

We set down our packs at the lake and walked around a bit. After a bit of exploring we decided to continue to Lower Cathedral Lake to camp. It would have been a nice lake to swim in, but it was still cold and windy.

Walking on the rocks around the lake

We thought there might be people camping at Lower Cathedral Lake, but we didn't see anyone there. Lower Cathedral Lake is a little detour off the main trail. We set up our tent in a forested area. Still no hot food but I had sour patch kids.

Day 3: Lower Cathedral Lake to the trailhead

Lake is mirroring the mountains and trees behind
Lower Cathedral Lake in the morning

The next morning the lake was extremely still.

Wooded tree spot, tent on dirt floor; big log on the left

The hike out was short and easy. On the way we passed by several hikers who were also on their way out. I don't know where they were camped because we didn't see them at Cathedral Lakes. We saw a deer by the lake and then some more deer on Tioga Road when we drove out.

Deer in the woods, standing on large rock floor