Distance: 8.5 miles (13.5 km) one way
Elevation Range: from 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) on the valley floor to 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) at Glacier Point
Total Elevation Change: 3,200 feet (975 meters)
Hiking Time: 4.5 - 7 hours
Why hike the Panorama Trail: Two of Yosemite's most spectacular hikes, Glacier Point and the Mist Trail, serve as bookends to a trail that also passes lesser-known gems like Panorama Point and Illilouette Falls. There are memorable views almost everywhere along this hike. One day you'll look back on your life and split it into its "before Panorama" and "after Panorama" periods.
Crowd Factor: High at the ends, medium in between. Glacier Point and the Mist Trail are both very popular, and though there will be hikers all along the trail in between, it shouldn't be enough to depress any but the most Cratchit-kicking misanthropic of us.
Difficulty: This trail rates a 6 out of 10 for the downhill route (Glacier Point to the valley), which is the more popular option not just because it's an easier hike, but because it's far easier to arrange transportation for (see the taking the bus section below for more details).
The trail is rocky in places, and descending the stair steps of the Mist Trail can be hard on knees; if yours are cranky, take the Muir Trail down the last portion instead. Although the trail is mostly downhill, after you cross the bridge over Illilouette Creek, you'll climb 700 feet in about a mile and a half (200 meters in 2.5 km) before descending again to the Mist Trail.
Must-See Unmarked Detour: The short (less than 100 meters) trail to Panorama Point is unsigned but worth seeking out. It's got incredible panoramic views ranging from Glacier Point (you can see the gift shop and the Geology Hut) to the Royal Arches, North Dome, and the back of Half Dome. You can also see hikers making their way up the early stages of the Mist Trail. What really makes it great, though, is that most of the other hikers on the trail will walk right past the turnoff without even noticing it's there, and if you pass them again later, you can exchange polite greetings and then throw in a "Wow, wasn't Panorama Point something? Best part of the hike, in my opinion." And you might not be kidding.
Assuming you're doing the trail in the Glacier-Point-to-Yosemite-Valley direction, you'll find the trail that veers left to Panorama Point about half a mile (0.8 km) after you cross the bridge over Illilouette Creek. The trail cuts through a stand of manzanitas; be wary of brushing bare skin against the sandpaper-like bark.
There's a caveat to the Panorama Point detour: a section of the point broke off and fell to the valley floor during a 1977 rockfall, leaving the guardrails hanging out in space. The park service subsequently removed the guardrails altogether (some of the postholes are still visible) and rerouted the Panorama Trail so that it didn't go directly past the point. Another smaller rockfall ocurred in 1967 or '68 (record keeping was apparently more relaxed in those days), and there's always a chance that more of the point will fall off.
Best time to visit: The mountain scenery is good whenever the trail's open, but the waterfalls of the Mist Trail are best in the spring and early summer, when the most water is pouring over them. They have a longer primetime than Bridalveil or Yosemite Falls, since they're fed by the Merced River instead of the creeks that feed the other falls, but they've still usually lost a lot of volume by August.
Nearest Bathrooms: At the Glacier Point trailhead and just up the road from the valley trailhead at Happy Isles; there are also bathrooms along the trail above Nevada Fall, above Vernal Fall, and at the Vernal Fall footbridge.
Nearest Snacks: at Glacier Point and at Happy Isles - no matter which route you take, you can stock up on calories at the beginning and the end of the hike.
Riding the Glacier Point Bus: Most people do this hike one way from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley, which means parking in the valley and taking the Glacier Point bus from the Yosemite Lodge up to the trailhead at Glacier Point.
One-way bus tickets cost $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $15 for kids over five years, and nothing at all for kids under five. The bus leaves the Yosemite Lodge at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and takes a little over an hour to get to Glacier Point. You can buy tickets in advance online, over the phone at 209-372-1240, or in person at the Yosemite Lodge, the Curry Village check-in desk, or the Tours desk in Yosemite Village next to the market. The tickets desk at the Yosemite Lodge is usually open for longer hours than the other two - from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., generally. If you've already got your tickets, the lodge recommends you show up about 15 minutes before the bus leaves. If you bought your tickets over the phone, they recommend showing up about 45 minutes ahead of time to pick them up, because the lines at the ticket counter can grow long as the bus departure times near. You can buy bus tickets as far ahead of time as you want.
If you like maximizing the drama in your life, you can do the Panorama Trail from the valley floor to Glacier Point and then attempt to take the bus from Glacier Point back down to the valley. The safest way to do this is to park at Glacier Point, catch the bus down to the valley, and then hike back up to your car. The more dangerous, free-wheeling way is to park in the valley and hike directly to Glacier Point, trusting that you'll get there before the last bus leaves again for the valley floor.
The buses depart Glacier Point at approximately 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. You can't buy one-way tickets in advance for the Glacier-Point-to-Yosemite-Valley bus leg. Instead, you just show up and wave your money at the bus driver, and he'll let you on if there's room, which will occur if the bus didn't sell out or if some of the passengers riding up from the valley bought one-way tickets. The afternoon buses tend to be fuller than the early-morning one because the tickets - almost always round-trip - get bought in blocks by charter companies, whose big buses aren't allowed on Glacier Point Road.
You can get around the no-room-on-the-bus issue by buying round-trip tickets in advance, although these cost more ($49 for adults, $44 for seniors, $35 for kids).
One more potential issue is that the buses might not all run on days when there's not much demand. If you're planning to catch the bus at Glacier Point and buy a one-way ticket, call ahead the day before to make sure there'll be one there (209-372-1240).
Kick-Ass Alternate Route: If you're in excellent shape and don't want to be bothered with catching buses, try hiking the 4-Mile Trail up from the valley to Glacier Point and then the Panorama Trail back down again. It's about 14 miles (22 km) total, plus another three miles to reach your car once you're back to the valley, though you'll probably elect to catch the free shuttle buses instead of walking that stretch (see stops E7 and 16 on the valley shuttle map). It combines two 5-star hikes (three if you venture the extra quarter mile to cover the Glacier Point trail) into a single day. Half Dome gets the publicity, but this is probably the ultimate Yosemite day hike. You'll see an unmatched range of scenery, including everything that Yosemite Valley is famous for (except Bridalveil Fall, which is hidden by Cathedral Rocks), plus Glacier Point and Illilouette Falls. It's efficient, too; you'd have to drive more than 50 miles (80 km) to go from Yosemite Village to Glacier Point and back again by car.
Driving Directions to and Parking at Glacier Point: Glacier Point is at the terminus of the 16-mile (25 km) Glacier Point Road. If you're in Yosemite Valley, take Highway 41 roughly nine miles to the Glacier Point Road; if you're at the southern entrance, it's about 17 miles (26 km) to the turnoff. There's a large parking lot at Glacier Point, and if there's not a spot open now, one should open up shortly.
Parking if you're catching the bus from Yosemite Valley: The bus leaves from in front of the Yosemite Lodge, but you can't park there unless you're a guest. Try parking at one of the two large lots in the valley - the day-use lot next to Yosemite Village or the Curry Village parking lot. You can catch free shuttle buses from either of these to the Yosemite Lodge. Better yet, show up a little earlier and walk; Yosemite Valley is one of the world's best places for a stroll. Figure on about 15 minutes to walk from the Yosemite Village lot to the Yosemite Lodge, or 40 minutes to hike from Curry Village.
Parking in Yosemite Valley and hiking directly up to Glacier Point: In this case, try to find a spot at the trailhead parking lot, which is in the southeast end of the valley on Southside Drive past Curry Village and just the past the turnoff to the Upper Pines campground. There's a sign here indicating that the road is for service vehicles only, but you can drive on it as far as the trailhead parking lot. If it's full, park at Curry Village.
Trail Notes: The Panorama trailhead at Glacier Point is at the southern end of the Glacier Point area, near the amphitheater. Once you're on the trail, you'll have at least three forks to navigate over the course of your hike; all are clearly signed and you shouldn't having any trouble figuring out where you need to go. The first fork (assuming you're hiking top to bottom) will be about a mile and a half in, before you cross Illilouette Creek. The left fork keeps you on the Panorama Trail; the right fork takes you to Mono Meadow and the Mono Meadow trailhead on the Glacier Point Road.
The second fork comes a few miles later, about when you begin the descent to the Mist Trail. Again, the left fork keeps you on the Panorama Trail; the right fork takes you to a variety of high-country destinations.
The third fork occurs just above Nevada Fall, when the Panorama Trail intersects the John Muir Trail. Turn left here to take the John Muir Trail the rest of the way to the valley (or rather, to just above the Vernal Fall footbridge, where it rejoins the Mist Trail), or turn right to proceed to Nevada Fall and take the Mist Trail down to the valley.
The Muir Trail is longer but less steep; it's a good choice if you're too fatigued for the stair-step descents of the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail is definitely more scenic, but the beginning of the Muir Trail does have an astonishing view to Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back of Half Dome.
If you take the Muir Trail, you'll encounter another fork at Clark Point. Take the right fork to intersect with the Mist Trail again above Vernal Fall; take the left fork to meet it below Vernal Fall near the Vernal Falls footbridge.
If you take the Mist Trail, you'll encounter a fork in the trail above Nevada Fall. The right fork takes you to Little Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Tenaya Lake; the left fork takes you back down the Mist Trail to Yosemite Valley.
If you're hiking bottom to top, take the Mist Trail, which is at the southeastern end of Yosemite Valley. Above Nevada Fall, continue towards the John Muir Trail, and you'll soon pass the Panorama Trail fork.
Notes on GPS mileage: Since reviewers have been reporting high GPS readings on the mileage for this hike, I'm going to caution hikers against taking their GPS stats too literally. I frequently record GPS tracks when I'm hiking in Yosemite, and they always require heavy editing before they resemble the routes I actually took. They regularly show me crisscrossing bridgeless rivers, suddenly diverting hundreds of feet into empty space over canyons and back again - which I'm sure I would have remembered - and generally zigzagging and backtracking like a drunken roomba. This is probably due to GPS devices getting obstructed from their satellite signals by heavy timber, canyon walls, and the like, and consequently attempting to just bluff their way through. Or maybe they're just on vacation like the rest of us and not paying close attention to their work. In any case, take your GPS readings here with the proverbial grain of salt.
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