A breathtaking tour of Yosemite Valley begins at the Four Mile Trail and travels up to the iconic Glacier Point with sweeping views. From there the aptly named Panorama Trail takes you down to the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail with more stunning vistas and three of Yosemite’s stunning waterfalls.
Utilizing Yosemite’s shuttle, the entire hike is 13.7mile/22.1km with an exhausting 4,400ft/1,320m of elevation up and down. The rewards, however, far exceed the exertion.
For those looking for for a shorter day with less elevation gain, have a friend drop you off at Glacier Point and travel down either the Four Mile Trail or the Panorama Trail back down to the valley.
An early start is warranted when you want to link the Four Mile Trail and the Panorama Trail. Not only is it a long day full of switchbacks and elevation, but the trailhead (like many in Yosemite Valley) quickly fills up. Luckily there was still a spot for me to park and I set off on my epic adventure.
A few mule deer grazed on the grasses as I approached the steep hillside I was about to ascend, passing oaks along the level floor. An unusually high snowpack the previous winter (2016/2017) made for fantastic waterfalls. My first one of the day was the tall, slender Sentinel Fall with tall stretches broken by ledges all the way down. The switchbacks arrived soon thereafter and I was on my way.
The grade is a fairly steep one despite the multitude of switchbacks. The trail begins with shrub oak and a dark understory. Steller’s Jays and Fox Sparrows scoured leaves looking for insects among them. Views of the sunlit walls across the valley were intermittent, but quickly grew as I climbed.
The trail initially climbs below Sentinel Rock before traversing northeast and continuing the steep climb up to Union Point. Along the way I passed a multitude of flowers, a variety of birds singing, and the views, the stunning views.
An early morning start has the great advantage of front lighting the valley across the way. This gives you a wonderful view of icons like El Capitan and especially Yosemite Falls. The Four Mile Trail is one of the few places that allow you to see all three sections of this wonderful waterfall in one look.
You can see Yosemite Creek crest the rim and dramatically drop to the Middle Cascades where it froths and tumbles its way down to the last drop that is Lower Yosemite Fall. With a high water flow and it brightly lit, I was in awe as I stopped too many times to catch my breath and admire.
I went out to the spur trail at Union Point which is one of the better vantages after gaining over 2,300ft/690m. You have a clear view of the angular Sentinel Rock over to the towering El Capitan and across to the entirety of Yosemite Falls.
Around this point I was able to start having some glances up the Tenaya Canyon with occasional views of Half Dome. I still had another 1,000ft/300m to climb and welcomed the leveling off of the trail as it wrapped around towards Glacier Point.
This level section cruises through towering trees on the north aspects of this ridge. As I approached Glacier Point, I could see the throngs that visit this “must see” vantage.
The point itself sits at the precipice of the cliff (with railing of course) and offers the view of Tenaya Canyon with Half Dome that we’ve all seen before in photos. Because you can drive up to the point, you’ll be sharing views with others.
You also get your first look further up the Merced River drainage that has Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall as well as Panorama Cliff and Illilouette Fall. The views from this location are not oversold.
From there I left the crowds and began heading south along Illilouette Ridge on the Panorama Trail. This trail pleasantly descends through tall ponderosas and a sea of shrubbery. Once again, flowers and birds accompanied the ever changing vistas.
The trail begins to switchback down toward Illilouette Creek. One of the last switchbacks is at the edge of a cliff and gives you a dramatic look at Illilouette Falls as it drops, then makes a hard right hand turn and continues down Illilouette Gorge. Once again, the high snowpack made this waterfall a roaring wonder.
I continued on, crossing over the creek and began climbing up above Panorama Cliff. This section was the driest of all of the sections of trail which showed a new menu of flowers that I’d not seen in other sections. The sheer variety of aspects, landscapes, flora, and fauna continually delighted me the entire day.
As I climbed, I got new views looking out over Yosemite Valley with Yosemite Falls, once again, becoming visible. Half Dome from this angle was just a dome as it’s iconic cleaved face was opposite of me.
Once at the apex of this section over the cliff, the trail leveled out and descended into a much wetter forest with a new variety of flowers such as Sierra Shootingstars and Pretty Face (see photos below for more).
I started switchbacking down to reach the John Muir Trail and decided to sneak on over and look at Nevada Fall. I knew that I would see it later on when I climbed Half Dome, but I wanted to see it earlier in the season as it was in rare form and I’m glad I did!
The Merced River was a ferocious torrent and was up on the rocks past some of the railing. When it crashed over the lip as Nevada Fall, it was a roaring waterfall, Being able to see it up so close and marvel at it blasting mist down below was thrilling.
I decided to head back down via the John Muir Trail and skip Vernal Fall as I didn’t want to walk down the narrow switchbacks on the other side of Nevada Fall and I’d see it later.
After many more switchbacks, I crossed over the Merced River where it was a white, frothing torrent. Vernal Fall was visible upstream. From there, the paved path (with some surprisingly steep sections) took me along the river and down to happy Isles Bridge. The trail leveled out and the river widened as I approached the bus stop.
I decided to take the valley trail back to my vehicle instead of riding the bus so that I didn’t have to wait and I could record my blog. Back at my van, I collapsed exhausted, but smiling at my epic day.