Escape from the hustle and bustle of Tuolumne Meadows into the Cathedral Range! This route takes you a short distance but a long way away from the Yosemite's busy Tuolumne Meadows region and the Tioga Road to a quiet subalpine lake surrounded by granite peaks. Nothing good comes without a cost, however, and the price you pay here is forsaking well-signed and well-graded trails. If navigation is not your strong point, this is not the trail for you.
The hike starts rather innocuously by site B49 in the Tuolumne Meadows campground (there is parking and bear boxes by the trailhead), and climbs 1000 feet through the forest on a good trail to Elizabeth Lake, where you finally break out of the trees and are rewarded with a great view of Unicorn Peak and other parts of the Cathedral Range. Elizabeth Lake provides a wonderful place to stop, rest, catch your breath, and refill your water bottles. From here, the adventure begins as the Park Service trails fade out and well-worn use trails become your guide: continue south on a well-worn trail until it starts climbing up. The trails you'll be following from here on are generally easy to follow but not always, and have little regard for your legs or lungs as they go up-up-up towards the crest of the Cathedral Range. Pay attention lest you lose your way in the forest.
You break out of the trees at long last at 10,000 feet, just in time to crest the ridge and get beautiful views of Tuolumne Meadows and the high country north of there. Ahead of you is the long narrow valley of Echo Creek, with Cockscomb on the right (west). The trail then drops just as steeply as it climbed towards the bottom of Echo Creek Valley and wanders through two lovely meadows. Stay on the eastern side of the meadows, especially in the second meadow, as the trail to Nelson Lake will head east partway through the second meadow. Once you start climbing from this second meadow, the the use trail becomes trickier to follow and relies more on unreliable "ducks" (piles of stones left by previous hikers who might, or might not, have had an idea of where they were going). Continue heading east.
Soon enough you begin to drop into the bowl of Nelson Lake -- there are campsites all around the lake and great places to watch the sunset on the ridge above. The open country around here has lots of possibilities for exploration.
Retrace your way to the trailhead.
Permits are required, they can be obtained from the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Station, the trailhead is "Elizabeth Lake" (and is NOT listed on the wilderness permit page).
The hike up to the ridge from Tuolumne Meadows is mostly in the forest and south of Elizabeth Lake is a fairly steep use trail rather than an official Park Service trail.As use trails go it's easy to follow but there are a few parts where it can get a little confusing. Don't do this if you're not comfortable not being on a trail.
Here the Muir Trail crosses your path, west to Yosemite Valley and east towards Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass (and eventually Mount Whitney). Continue on your trail; after this things start getting steeper.