I’ve been Yosemite many, many times (ya, it’s an awesome life) and yet the Panorama Trail remained well off my radar for years. Now that I’ve finally tagged it, let me say this: if you’ve got just one day to explore Yosemite Valley, this hike is the one you want.
Over the course of around 14 miles, you’ll tackle one of Yosemite’s classic hikes taking you out of the valley and up to one of the the park’s most iconic viewpoints. From there, you’ll ditch the crowds and head towards the wilderness with an epic view of Half Dome and distant mountain ranges. After an amazing and likely pretty quiet walk, you’ll find yourself above two of the most impressive waterfalls and end with a descent down the famous Mist Trail. It’s pretty rad.
Heads up: This post uses a mix of photos from different hikes I’ve done along each section to show how it looks over the year.
Also while it should go without saying, this is a long and at times remote hike. Know the conditions for the day, bring the 10 essentials including lots of water, food and layers for the changing weather and plan ahead.
The Four-Mile Trail Version
Sure, plenty of people do the 8.5 mile Panorama Trail shuttling cars, catching the shuttle or even walking back down to the valley and that’s pretty solid but you know what makes the day really exciting? Kicking it off with a hike up and out of the valley first (that’s over 3,200′ of climbing FYI.)
You’ll kick things off at the Four-Mile Trail (it’s actually like 4.8 miles but guess that didn’t sound as catchy) which you can park right next too or reach with a short walk from the Camp 4 or Swinging Bridge shuttle stops depending on the season. From there, tighten up your laces and extend your poles for the 3,000 vertical feet of elevation you’re about to climb in under 5 miles.
It’s not just the accomplishment of doubling the Panorama Trail with a serious climb that makes this route badass, the views along the way on the 4 mile trail are great. You’ll have a direct look across at Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), catch Half Dome dead on but it’s El Cap and the Valley that really steal the show.
You can read my full description of hiking 4 mile trail but the short version is that while you’ll climb a lot, this trail is super well graded, maintained and while it’s rocky, dirt (like you know, a trail), it’s about as straight forward as it gets. That said, you’ll be exposed to the elements at least half the time and things get real sketchy in winter and spring with ice and snow along the trail. No water or facilities along the way.
Welcome to Glacier Point!
Destination number two (assuming the trailhead counts as 1 and ignoring all the epic viewpoints you also will stop at) is Glacier Point. Sure, you can drive just about right up to the point in summer but that’s just not the same adventure or accomplishment or views. And, much of the year, the road is closed so hiking up is the only option (4 mile trail closes too so check for conditions in winter.)
It’s only a short and relatively flat walk out to the Glacier Point view from the 4 Mile Trail but damn is it impressive. You’ll have an incredible perspective on Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and much of the valley floor from there. In summer, you’ll also find restrooms, a place to refill water and a snack shop where you can grab an early lunch before the next round.
Hiking Down the Panorama Trail
When I said that I overlooked Panorama Trail, I mean that as being all on me, this trail is about as obvious as it gets, I mean it has its own sign!
Despite the obviousness of it, the long length and option of driving up to Glacier Point makes it a well less traveled trail. You will likely see a few people hiking up but nothing like what you’ll find on other major Yosemite trails (or what you’ll hit at the Mist Trail) which is pretty awesome considering the views.
The trail starts out from just beyond of Glacier Point (near the parking lot) and quickly begins descending below it with a constant view of Half Dome ahead. Spring should reveal plenty of local waterfalls and late fall, plenty of amazing colors in the trees. For the most part, you’re headed down from here till the end save for one decent climb to come.
As you wander further and further down towards the river, you’ll find a nice cliff-side view of Illilouette Falls which is impressive even well into summer or early fall. From there, you’ll cross Illilouette Creek on one of Yosemite’s fantastic bridges (so no need to worry about dicey conditions in heavy flow seasons) before the one uphill section of the trail.
After a long climb and likely under the mid-day sun, the 500 or so feet you’ll ascend here can feel rough but it’s over before it gets too bad and brings you high enough to return to epic views. Now headed east, you’ll have a clear perspective of the back of half dome and Cloud Cap (another great hike) beyond it as well as occasional glances down into the valley or back to Glacier Point. It’s gentle walking and stunning landscape.
Nevada, Vernal Falls and the Mist or JMT
As you approach the last stretch of the hike and start to really feel the impact of all those steps, you have a few options. The most direct route back to the valley is via the John Muir Trail (aka the JMT) which skirts to the side of Nevada and Vernal Falls though the famous and amazing Mist Trail is just a few steps more!
While the JMT lacks the chance to stand right above the falls, it does have a few perks. First, you’ll avoid the crazy crowds of the Mist Trail, you’ll also avoid the huge stone steps and you get what I think is a better perspective on the falls, though at a distance.
The longer route via the Mist Trail means the chance to stand above Nevada Falls and watch it roar below, hike along side it to Vernal Falls and then walk through one of Yosemite’s most popular trails.
You can also do a bit of each taking the JMT around Nevada Falls and then cutting back to the top of Vernal in time for the main Mist Trail. My suggestion is to do this or just the JMT when the falls are low (or if you’re afraid of heights) and the Mist Trail route when the falls are roaring.
Either way, it’s an epic way to wrap up the day as you watch waterfalls, the raging Merced River and all while hiking under the cover of the forest once again. Both trails meet back up just before the Vernal Falls footbridge where you should expect to run into heavy crowds for the last 1.6 mile / 400′ walk on the now paved trail back to the valley floor and Happy Isles.
Shuttling back to your car
It’s ~3 miles from the Happy Isles Shuttle Stop to the Four Mile Trail Trailhead but good news, the shuttle is here to help! Running every few minutes and totally free, the valley shuttle will get you pretty close to your car or back to any valley campground / hotel.
Take it to the Camp 4 stop and follow the paths to Swinging Bridge or switch over to the El Capitan Shuttle (in summer only) and take that directly to Swinging Bridge which is just a few hundred feet from the trailhead. The shuttle also gives you the chance to grab a bite to eat at Half Dome Village or the main Yosemite Village, stop in at the Museum and much more though odds are your feet will greatly appreciate changing into a new pair of shoes first!
Alternative hike options
Hiking up Four-Mile Trail makes for a big day and while I think it’s an epic one worth doing, it’s not for everyone. If you want the views without quite as direct a hike or long of a hike for that matter, you have a few options.
First, you can simply drive to Glacier Point and hike on down for about 8 miles of walking and 500′ of climbing. Getting back to your car is tricky and requires either having a second car (and a lot more driving) or catching the summer Glacier Point shuttle. YosemiteHikes.com has all the details on this.
Second, you can reverse the direction. It’s as much walking and climbing but the Panorama Trail is much more mellow (after the Mist Trail sections that is) so some people find it easier to go that way and then walk down Four Mile.
Lodging, facilities and what’s around:
This trail is from the Yosemite Valley floor and marked in Google Maps as the Four Mile Trailhead so it’s easy to get to with plenty around. You’ll find camping, hotels, the village store with all sorts of food, the climb shop and more. Of course none of these are on the trail so pack well for a long day out and plan early as Yosemite lodging fills up long in advance.
In winter, it’s much easier to get a spot but less is open (Four Mile trail does close if there’s enough snow / ice on the trail.)
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Loop via Four Mile Trail
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Happy Isles
- Distance: ~14 miles (~17 without the shuttle)
- Duration: One Full Day
- Elevation Gain: ~4,000′ with up and down
- Facilities: A few restrooms along the way
- Water: Just at Glacier Point and only in summer
- Crowds: Moderate to light to crazy heavy
- Cost: None
- Permits: None
Note: These tracks are from a fall hike with the waterfalls at low flow. As such, I opted to skip the top of Nevada Falls and take the JMT to Vernal Falls (better view of the fall than you’ll find on the upper Mist Trail but at the expense of the rad from-the-top perspective.) You can go either way however; adding in Nevada Falls will add just a few tenths of a mile.