Backpacking Destinations Hiking National Parks Yosemite Backpacking Yosemite National Park

Backpacking in Yosemite National Parks Cathedral Range

Echo Peaks Echo Lake Yosemite
Written by Charlie Pankey

Adventure Review of 3 day backpacking adventure to Nelson, Matthes, Echo and Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite National Park

Going off trail on any adventure can be exciting for many explorers. But going off trail in Yosemite National Park brings an euphoria of emotions. Ok so I don’t want to over do it on emotions for this last adventure I took with my son in Yosemite. It was my first official off trail backpacking experience in the Park, but going off trail on adventures is a common practice for myself and as I learned on this adventure there are many who consider this a annual ritual of sorts.

When I was looking for a backpacking location this year in Yosemite I was trying to remember my favorite parts of last years hike into Youngs Lake Basin plus add just a little more seclusion to the factor without going completely off the grid in the Northern Sections of the Park. I knew that I still wanted to start from Tuolumne area if possible and I loved the idea of seeing multiple lakes. I got a recommendation from a reader which is on a mission to photograph every lake in Yosemite @lakesofyosemite about Nelson Lake and after reviewing several YouTube reviews I settled in on Nelson Lake in the Cathedral Range as my destination to start my adventure planning.

Nelson Lake Yosemite evening glow
Nelson Lake

Nelson Lake

Nelson Lake is a typical Yosemite Lake half tree lined and the other half dressed with a huge mountain of granite and a feeder meadow of moss, grass and other wildflowers. The feature mountain at Nelson Lake is commonly refereed to as Choo-Choo mountain (not its official geological name) is a huge chunk of granite that dominate the landscape and is close enough to the lake that it makes it hard to get a full reflection of the mountain in the lake.

Fishing was plentiful at Nelson Lake on all shore lines as fly fisherman and Bald Eagles enjoyed an evening of fishing on our visit each with great success. Because Nelson Lake sits above 9600′ no fires are allowed at Nelson lake and the evenings can bit a bit cooler as most of the camping is within 200 ft of the lake unless you go up the meadow towards the Reyman Lake region.

The trail to Nelson Lake is considered off trail because the maintained trail ends at Elizabeth lake out of Tuolumne Meadows so hikers must either go off trail and cross the Unicorn Peak/ Cockscrum range area over into Echo Creek Basin or make there way over from Matthes Lake using nothing but map directions and compass. However the “User” trail out of Elizabeth Lake over the mountain and through the Echo Creek basin is pretty darn easy to spot and follow most of the way to the lake. The trail leaves Elizabeth lake and heads south towards the Cockscrum peak area hikers aiming between peaks for a small saddle area to the East of the Cockscrum peak. The climb here is intense but relatively short up to to a sandy granite saddle, which leads you down into the Echo creak basin. The Echo Creek basin opens into a series of lush meadows and the trail stays on the south-side of the creek for approx 1.5 miles before the ridge of the south starts to turn and the Second large meadow comes to a forest end where the trail heads back up approx 200 ft to Nelson Lake.

After a great evening photographing the Sierra Glow off Choo-Choo mountain into the reflection Pool of Nelson Lake, Swimming and exploring around the lake, the next stage of our adventure would take us west to Matthes Lake. A challenging journey that requires map skills and depending on the route you choose some rock scrambling skills as you drop 200 ft from Nelson Lake back across Echo Creek and face a steep set of mountain terrain with what I might describe as “Sketchy” choices if you want to take short cuts to a more moderate route that requires patience and map reading skills to navigate without going miles out of your way just to back track to the lake. We choose to follow a group of old fishing buddies over the “Sketchy route” they had done it before and seemed certain of the route. They new exactly what they were doing and the route was hard at times nearly vertical but doable even with a pack on.

Mathes-Lake Yosemite
Mathis Lake Yosemite

Mathes Lake

We crested the ridge at just below 10,000 ft to the beautiful site of Matthes Crest directly in front of us and the crystal clear waters below, as well as the vista views of much of the granite valleys surrounds us.

Matthes lake is a stunning setting with a high granite wall seeming to explode from the earth on its Western shore line and the lush green meadow that drapes the shore lines and continues for the entire length of the canyon to the north with CockScrum Peak at its far north border. Fishing again was a favorite of those we saw at the lake, but we choose to swim, nap int he meadow with our feet in the water and have a delightful trail lunch after a hard climb over the ridge. On our trip we only visited Matthes for a few hours, but in future trips we will make sure we stay much longer at this special location.

Our destination plan was to stay instead at Echo Lake which was just to the West of the Matthes Crest (The Backside) below Echo peaks.

Echo Peaks Echo Lake Yosemite
Echo Peaks Echo Lake Yosemite

Echo Lake

Hiking to Echo Lake from Matthes lake gives you two off trail options. first up and over a forested saddle area near the south of the lake or to exit south and round the mountain edge coming up to the lake from the south along the creek and meadow. We choose the southern route and found the route strangely complicated yet fairly easy as we hugged the mountain but had to continually hike down to a valley floor that was not really highlighted on our maps. We found that staying as high as possible was the best route until the valley floor rose up to the lake level where we then could follow the creek through meadow/forest area to Echo Lake.

Echo Lake is a simple little lake wrapped with a lush moss meadow full of moisture ( at least this August ) and draped with Echo Peaks to the North, Matthes Crest to the East and the granite walls on the West that cut us off from the busy JMT trail. Echo lake was also our first foray below the 9600′ mark which means campfires are allowed in previous fire pits around the lake and the Forest canopy surrounding the meadow was full of suitable camp spots especially for us Hammock Campers. Because of the high peaks on Three sides the sunset here is brief and the Sierra glow is minimal at best off the Peaks to the East. Mosquito’s sent us to our hammocks early for the night and the lack of light called for an early evening.

Leaving Echo Lake on our trip early in the morning was simply peaceful as the forest and meadow seemed to still be a sleep. To exit towards Cathedral Lakes we headed North West through the forest edge below Echo Peaks and followed the creek /meadow up and around to the JMT just above Upper Cathedral Lake. Cathedral Peak appears son after we started hiking and gave us a great directional comfort that we were indeed headed the right direction and we could afford to get out on the edge of the meadow to save our socks which were now getting soaked.

Upper Cathedral Lake Title image

Upper Cathedral Lake

Upper Cathedral Lake is one of my favorite places in Yosemite and we had to stop for a relaxing almost meditative visit on the West shore line as many fish (most fairly large size) continually splash about on the Western shore line. A short hike up the Northern face to peak over at South Cathedral lake and a stop to refill water bottles and we were off , headed down the JMT and back into the mainstream of life. Crazy in less than a mile we saw 5-x more people than we had scene in the last three days.. the JMT to Cathedral lakes is a very popular hike.

Back at Tuolumne meadows we sat in the meadow under a tree, ate some lunch and already started to reminisce about our visit to the back country routes in the Cathedral Range. A beautiful and memorable experience that ranks very high in my all time Yosemite adventures.

About the author

Charlie Pankey


  • Hey! I did Nelson Lake with my son too last summer! From there we cross-countried west to a little valley below a dome that’s known for its echoes. From there we went to Upper Sunrise Lake, then cross country to the Thumb,, then on trail to Upper Cathedral. What an amazing trip! I enjoyed reading your account! Thanks.

    • Vicki, That sounds like a fun route. Glad you enjoyed Nelson. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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