Panorama Trail is a 10-mile long point-to-point hike from the top to the bottom of Yosemite Valley. Starting at Glacier Point and ending at Happy Isles, the trail descends 3,200 feet and is filled with sensational views. You could not pick a more panoramic start for Panorama Trail than Glacier Point, a spectacular drive-up overlook atop the south wall of Yosemite Valley. The trail descends past Illilouette Falls on a course with stop-you-in-your-tracks views of Half Dome at nearly every turn. The bottom of the hike follows the Mist Trail alongside two daunting waterfalls, Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall, making Panorama Trail one of the most impressive hikes in Yosemite National Park.
Panorama Trail is typically tackled as a one-way hike from Glacier Point down to the valley floor, dropping 3,200 feet along the way (those glutton for punishment can climb the trail in the opposite direction). To facilitate the through hike, get a one-way ticket on the Yosemite Lodge Tour Bus from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. While park signs show the length of the hike as 8 miles, the actual distance is closer to 10 miles. Carry plenty of water and plan for a long day hike. Because you are starting from Glacier Point, which offers one of the best vistas in the park, be sure to survey Yosemite Valley and all the surrounding domes, peaks, and waterfalls, before heading down the trail.
You will find a large wooden sign for Panorama Trail at the south end of Glacier Point not far from the parking area. The single-track trail heads briefly uphill before commencing a gradual southward descent away from the 7,200-foot overlook. The cushiony dirt trail plots an easy course along the east side of Illilouette Ridge toward a hanging valley carved by Illilouette Creek.
Oaks and pines provide occasional shade while you enjoy the kinds of views you would expect to find on a trail named Panorama. Right from the very start, there are vast eastward views toward Half Dome, Liberty Cap, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall. The waterfalls are exciting to see, especially knowing that you will be hiking in their splash zone in just a few hours.
A mile from Glacier Point, the top of Illilouette Falls appears, diving off a granite cliff. At two miles from the start, turn left at a marked junction to continue down Panorama Trail toward Illilouette Falls. Half a mile past the junction, you will pass a perch atop the sheer canyon wall facing Illilouette Falls. This is the hike’s best view of the waterfall as it plunges over the edge, making a thunderous 370-foot free-fall into the side canyon below. The perspective of Illilouette Falls is mesmerizing. Just don’t step too close to the edge.
Panorama Trail continues downhil through a pine forest toward Illilouette Creek just above the waterfall. After dropping 1,300 feet in just under 3 miles, the trail crosses a footbridge over the creek and turns uphill.
As you climb the opposite bank, you can peak off the edge of Panorama Cliff across Yosemite Valley toward North Dome and the Royal Arches on the opposing granite wall. The trail launches into a string of switchbacks that break up this mostly downhill hike. Keep an eye out for a spur trail veering off to the left, just under 2/3 of a mile from the creek. The spur trail is unmarked, but leads to an impressive vista point on Panorama Cliff, so you do not want to miss it. After a compact line of switchbacks, the trail makes an extended run to the right (south), before routing back toward Yosemite Valley. When the trail curves to the right, heading east, break off the trail and continue straight north. If you miss the junction, you will begin hiking east toward a jumbled rock pile that is visible above the trees.
Take the path for a tenth of a mile, passing through waist-high Manzanita’s to a landing on Panorama Cliff. Half Dome, North Dome, Royal Arches, and Glacier Point are all in sight. This may be the broadest possible view of Yosemite Valley that does not include one of its marquee waterfalls (but there are plenty more waterfall views just up the trail). The cliff soars above the confluence of Illilouette Creek and the Merced River. Take a break from hiking and enjoy the view.
Jumping for joy on Panorama Cliff
Backtrack to Panorama Trail, which continues east, maintaining an uphill course for another 3/4 of a mile before cresting and heading back downhill. There is 750 feet of elevation gain between Illilouette Creek and this rise in the trail. To keep you motivated, there are views across Yosemite Valley toward Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. And like a carrot on a string, the looming granite mass of Half Dome oftern hovers directly in front of the trail.
Upper Yosemite Fall
Liberty Cap and the top of Nevada Fall come into view after another quarter mile. The trail travels downhill through a forest of tall peaceful pines, many of which are covered in yellowish green wolf lichens. Stay straight through a junction with a trail to Ottoway Lakes, and meander down long switchbacks that overlap seasonal streams.
Panorama Trail comes to a T-junction with John Muir Trail, 3.35 miles from Illilouette Creek. If you prefer a more gradual but less dramatic hike down to Yosemite Valley, turn left. Otherwise, to hike down the Mist Trail, turn right and hike a quarter mile to the brink of Nevada Fall. Cross over the Merced River on a footbridge just above the waterfall. On the other side, you may make a detour to the left down to an overlook just below the top of the waterfall, which drops nearly 600 feet into the canyon below.
Looking down Nevada Fall
Enjoy the view from the top of Nevada Fall, and hike another quarter mile to a junction with the top of the Mist Trail. There is a bathroom to mark the spot. The trail to Half Dome continues straight ahead, but turn left to hike the final three miles down the Mist Trail to Yosemite Valley.
Hiking down the stone steps along the Mist Trail can be taxing on tired legs, so take your time. The descent is steep, but delivers good head-on views of Nevada Fall. Below the waterfall, the trail passes through a surprisingly dense forest of relaxation-providing pines. Proceed across a footbridge just above Emerald Pool and follow the Merced River to the top of Vernal Fall.
Look over the waterfall from a fenced-in overlook at the brink. There are just 1.65 miles to go, and the next stretch of the Mist Trail is as exciting as anything that has come so far. Descend stone steps on an invigorating path to the base of Vernal Fall. Prepare for a shower of waterfall spray along the way. Below the steps, the Mist Trail joins the other end of John Muir Trail and continues to a footbridge below Vernal Fall. There is another bathroom here along with a water fountain.
A rainbow at the base of Vernal Fall
The trail is paved for the final 0.9 miles down to Yosemite Valley. There is some extra uphill after crossing the footbridge, rewarded by a view of Illilouette Falls, now from the bottom up. Yosemite Falls makes a final appearance before you reach the bottom of the trail. Turn left across one last bridge over the Merced River to reach the Happy Isles Shuttle Stop. Take the free park shuttle back to the Yosemite Lodge or another destination in Yosemite Valley.
The bus from Yosemite Lodge to Glacier Point departs daily at 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. One-way tickets are $25 for adults. The ride to Glacier Point lasts about 90 minutes. The tour bus driver will narrate the ride with information about the park. Make a reservation at the activities desk inside the hotel or by calling (209) 372-4386. No permit is required to hike Panorama Trail, but there is an entrance fee for Yosemite National Park.
To get to Glacier Point: The road to Glacier Point (called Glacier Point Road) is located ten miles south of Yosemite Valley off Highway 41. The road to Glacier Point is also seventeen miles from the south entrance. Turn east on Glacier Point Road and drive fifteen miles to the parking area at the end of the road.
Trailhead address: Glacier Point Road, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Trailhead coordinates: 37.727942, -119.573476 (37° 43′ 40.59″N 119° 34′ 24.51″W)
To get to Yosemite Lodge at the Falls: Take Northside Drive west of Yosemite Village just past the trailhead for Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Turn right on Yosemite Lodge Drive to reach the hotel entrance.
Lodge address: Yosemite Lodge Drive, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Lodge coordinates: 37.743181, -119.598071 (37° 44′ 35.45″N 119° 35′ 53.05″W)
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