Panorama Loop in Yosemite

A long hike with some of the best and most extensive views of Yosemite Valley. Starting at the valley floor, climbing up the Mist Trail and past Vernal and Nevada Falls, following the Panorama Trail round, over Illilouette Fall, and around to Glacier Point, before dropping back down to the valley floor via Four Mile Trail.

I did this loop on the last day of a four-day trip to Yosemite. I’ve been up the Mist Trail multiple times in the past, it’s one of Yosemite’s most popular trails, and for good reason. I got to the trailhead early to try to beat the crowds. Still, at 6 in the morning there were multiple groups of people who had the same idea and were heading up the trail alongside me. With the snow melt from the huge snowpack this winter the rivers were swollen, and the waterfalls promised to be spectacular.

The trail starts at Happy Isles as the John Muir Trail (JMT), following the Merced River up to Nevada Fall. It’s paved for the first mile, up to a bridge over the Merced. Then, as the John Muir Trail splits off, the Mist Trail turns into granite steps that climb steeply besides Vernal Fall. There was a huge volume of water pouring over the falls, and walking up the steps the spray was more like rain than mist. I was completely soaked by the time I got to the top.

Above Vernal Fall there is another steep climb that ends with another set of granite steps, alongside Nevada Fall. The trail isn’t as close to the water here, as the valley is much wider, but there’s still great views of fall on the way up. At the top of Nevada Fall there’s a bridge that crosses back over the Merced right before the river plunges over the edge.

In a little under 3 miles the trail is now 2,000 ft above the valley floor. Another short section of the JMT connects over to the Panorama Trail, and switchbacks carry up and over to Illilouette Fall. On this section of trail I had left all the people behind, and other than a few backpackers I had the trail to myself for a few miles.

On the way up Panorama Trail there are glimpses back to Nevada Fall, as it starts to recede into the distance, and some views down into the valley. It’s not until after dropping down to Illilouette Fall, and climbing back up the other side, towards Glacier Point, that the views really start to open up in all directions; up the basin of Illilouette Creek, back to see both Vernal and Nevada Falls, and, on the other side of Half Dome, up Tenaya Canyon.

Nearing the top of Panorama Trail the number of people start to increase again, until, on reaching the high point of the hike, over 3,000 ft above the valley floor, there is suddenly an explosion of people at Glacier Point. And it’s hard to fault them, the vista across Yosemite Valley and its famous waterfalls and beyond is killer. I found a shaded spot and had sat down for lunch, taking in the view.

To complete the loop Four Mile Trail drops down over 3,ooo ft in a little more than 4 miles of many many switchbacks, back down to the valley floor. The trail here is relatively exposed, and I’m glad I wasn’t one of the many people I passed, climbing up in the afternoon sun. As the trail begins there’s a fantastic view down the valley, which isn’t visible from Glacier Point, of the sheer granite face of El Capitan as the Merced meanders through the forested floor. As the trail continues to drop the valley gets closer and closer until, finally, the trail joins up to the valley loop.

From here it’s a flat 2 mile walk back around to Happy Isles. The free valley shuttle could cut out most of this distance, but I wanted to complete the loop. In total the loop is a little over 16 miles with over 4,500 ft total elevation gain, but in exchange you get unbeatable views. This time of year, with the amount of water swelling the rivers and waterfalls, it was spectacular.

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