Half Dome gets all the attention, but The Panorama Trail from Glacier Point to Happy Isles may be Yosemite’s best day hike.
!!!!! NOTE THAT THE GLACIER POINT ROAD IS SCHEDULED TO BE CLOSED FOR THE ENTIRETY OF THE 2021 SEASON !!!!!
Panorama Trail Guide – Yosemite
MAP: Trails Illustrated, or see below
PERMITS: Required for backpacking (Not required for day hikes)
DESIGNATION: Yosemite National Park (entrance fee)
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: 8.5 miles from Glacier Point to Happy Isles
WATER: Illilouette Creek and Merced River
ELEVATION: 7,230 at Glacier Point – 4,000ft at Happy Isles – ~3,200ft change
ACCESS: paved roads
DIRECTIONS: If you begin this hike at Glacier Point, it will be downhill all the way! To get to Glacier Point, travel south from Yosemite Valley on the Wawona Road (Route 41) for 9 miles. Turn left on the Glacier Point Road, following it for 16 miles to its terminus. Otherwise, the downhill end of the trail is at Happy Isles, at the head of Yosemite Valley.
ROUTE: forest trail, with occasional rocky exposure
GUIDEBOOK: Yosemite: The Complete Guide
Panorama Trail Map
Here’s the National Park map that shows the Panorama Trail, marked in red. From the technical end of the Panorama Trail, you’ll be following the Mist trail or John Muir Trail to Happy Isles. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version, or download it.
Shuttle Bus to Glacier Point
The so-called shuttle to Glacier Point is actually a bus tour that begins and ends at Yosemite Lodge. Here’s the basics about it.
- only operates in-season, from May through October
- 4-hour round trip
- departs from the lodge twice daily, at 8:30am and 1:30pm
- can be reserved in advance, one-way to Glacier Point for $28.50 per person
Here’s an interesting note for those that want to do the hike uphill from Happy Isles. If there’s space, the bus will pick you up from Glacier Point and take you back to Yosemite Lodge. There should generally always be space available, as someone is bound to have to have booked a one-way tour, and the tour may not even be full in the first place.
Or approach via the Four-Mile Trail
For strong hikers, the 4-Mile Trail provides a great way to eschew the logistics of getting to Glacier Point. This trail is actually 4.8 miles, and it climbs from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. Free shuttle buses throughout the Valley will take you to its trail head, at the base of Cathedral Rocks (The El Capitan Shuttle).
The trouble with this extension is that it turns an 8.5 mile, downhill hike into a 13+ mile hike with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain! Whew! That’ll sure ramp up the difficulty of this hike!
The 4-Mile Trail is generally closed in winter.
Camping is not allowed along the Panorama Trail. However, you’re free to use it to connect longer adventures to Merced Pass, Little Yosemite Valley (the John Muir Trail), or the Pohono Trail.
Panorama Trail Description
These are the directions from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley (5.5 miles one-way) and ultimately to Happy Isles and Yosemite Village (an additional 3 miles).
Head south from the amphitheater at Glacier Point to find the Panorama Trail. Soon you’ll turn east, gradually descending for 1.6 miles toward Illilouette Falls. Dramatic views of Half Dome (and the peaks beyond) are plentiful, and the crowds will lessen.
Turn left at the junction with the Buena Vista trail, continuing a descent into Illilouette Creek’s gorge. In a half-mile, you’ll reach a precipice that provides the only decent view of the waterfall. Be careful here, and continue on the trail to the footbridge over the falls.
Illilouette Falls is 380 feet high. Like most waterfalls in Yosemite, it’s best viewed in late spring and early summer. Of Yosemite Valley’s 5 key waterfalls, this one is probably the least visited. It carves itself into a deep, narrow, boulder-strewn canyon, which doesn’t lend itself to visitation. Though in late autumn (or John Muir’s “Indian Summer”), it’s reportedly possible to make your up Illilouette Creek from the bottom of the valley.
The meaning behind Illilouette’s name is unknown. Native Americans are said to have called the falls “Too-lool-lo-we-ak,” so it stands to reason that the modern name may be a garbled translation of the original.
After crossing the bridge over Illilouette Creek, you’ll gain about 500 feet of elevation as you ascend a tight set of switchbacks. At the top of these switchbacks (and about a half mile after crossing the bridge), you may spot an unmarked, faint trail leading off through some manzanita to the left. This short spur leads to the unofficial overlook called Panorama Point.
Situated on the east side of Illilouette Creek’s gorge, the point offers sweeping, unrivaled views of Yosemite Valley’s many landmarks. Be warned that the overlook poses a significant risk of rock-fall collapsing beneath your feet, thus its undesignated nature.
Panorama Point is the common named attributed to the viewpoint, derived from early topo maps. Some newer maps, however, show Panorama Point labelled as the high point marked 7007′ a short distance to the east.
Options in Little Yosemite Valley
After a wonderful contour, you’ll come to a trail junction that’s 2 miles beyond the footbridge over Illilouette Creek. The trail to the right dives along a burned meadow into Yosemite’s deeper wilderness to the south, so continue straight ahead, losing elevation on the descent toward the Merced River.
Watch your breath – it may be taken away by the scene of the tall Nevada Falls directly in front of you, juxtaposed by the even taller Liberty Cap, beyond.
The next junction provides the option to return to the valley via the John Muir or the Mist Trail.
1) The John Muir Trail
Left on the John Muir Trail is the easier way to go, the equivalent of a “foul weather route” through the forest and a fast track to get your post-hike food and drinks.
Rather than getting up close and personal with the rocky banks of the Merced River, the John Muir Trail is a higher elevation contour along the near flank of Little Yosemite Valley.
2) The Mist Trail
If you’ve still got plenty of fuel left in the tank, daylight to burn and some spring in your knees, then the Mist Trail is the way to go. Besides, this is the best way to get up close and personal with Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. Just remember that this route comes with a set of cautions.
- The Mist Trail is often closed in winter, when the footpath gets icy.
- At least one section of the trail involves a steep, granite staircase. It can be treacherous, not to mention hell on the knees at the end of a long day.
- Never, ever wade into the Merced River at the top of the waterfalls! The current is strong. As a result, numerous people have sadly been swept over the edge to meet their untimely deaths. Don’t be a statistic!
Nevada Falls is the eye-catching waterfall that you’ve been feasting your eyes upon from way up on the Panorama Trail. It’s almost 600 feet high. The waterfall owes its name to the phrase “Sierra Nevada.”
In order to get the full Mist Trail experience at Nevada Falls, you’ll bear right at the aforementioned junction with the John Muir Trail, climbing above the falls and crossing the river over a bridge. Once on the far side, the Mist Trail descends the face of Nevada Falls via the weakness in the cliffs seen on the left side of the image above.
Vernal Falls is the 3rd and final waterfall encountered on a hike of the Panorama Trail. At 317ft tall it’s only half the height of the Nevada Falls… but it’s equally spectacular.
Both Nevada and Vernal Falls are perennial and flow at varying rates throughout the entire year (As opposed to Yosemite Falls, which is seasonal). Vernal Falls, however, owes its name to its association with the season of Spring, which you’ve heard in the context of the “vernal equinox.” The falls do flow at their highest rates in spring.
My Trip Report and Photos
I day-hiked the Panorama Trail from west to east on September 24, 2009. This was the second piece of a full, 22-mile day that began on the Pohono Trail, so I essentially hiked the length of Yosemite Valley’s south rim.
I was in my late 20s and in top shape after completing the entirety of the John Muir Trail, just a few days prior. A friend dropped me off at Tunnel View before sunrise, and I finished the day shortly after sunset.
I’d hiked up the Mist Trail about 3 weeks prior, so on this day I boogied down the John Muir Trail in a race against the sunset. The pizza at Curry Village was most welcome 🙂