Pure hiking bliss in Yosemite: Four-Mile Trail plus Panorama Trail

Quick, what’s the best dayhike in Yosemite Valley?

OK, that’s a dumb question. Kind of like being asked to pick the best microbrewed pale ale or the best flavor of ice cream. They’re all good, but everyone has a favorite.

For me, though, it’s still a pretty easy choice. If I’m going to visit Yosemite Valley in late spring or summer (and have to deal with all the traffic and hordes of tourists), it’s going to be for a hike you can’t do anywhere else. One with more knock-your-socks-off views per footstep than any in the park, if not the world.

This hike is so good, it can’t be contained by one trail. Combine the Four Mile Trail from the Valley to Glacier Point and the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point back to the Valley, and you get 13.8 miles of pure hiking bliss.

Of course, you don’t have to hike both trails. Either is worthwhile by itself. But by combining them, you get the full experience without having to retrace your steps or arrange a shuttle.

The key is getting an early start. Not only will you be able to find a parking spot at the trailhead, but also much of the Four Mile Trail will still be shaded. (When you’re climbing 3,200 feet in 4.6 miles, direct sun is not your friend.)

Completed in 1872 by the same man — John Conway — who built the Yosemite Falls Trail, the Four Mile Trail begins under the imposing north face of Sentinel Dome and under cover of oaks, maples and laurels.

It’s a steady climb, but the switchbacks are well-graded. With every step the views across the Valley of Yosemite Falls get better and better, each with a slightly different perspective. You can also peer down the Valley for interesting side profiles of Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and mighty El Capitan.

After three miles of steady climbing, the trail reaches the rim at Union Point (via a short spur) and breaks into sunlight. There are more switchbacks ahead, then a gradual climb through the forest to Glacier Point.

Walking around Glacier Point can be kind of a shock because the crowds are so thick. But, hey, at least you can buy a sandwich and Gatorade. And most of the tourists disappear as soon as you head down the Panorama Trail. Never has a trail been more aptly named. The Panorama Trail makes an elegant traverse across a hillside with eye-popping views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, Nevada Fall and Mount Starr King.

Heading downhill, keep left at a signed junction and continue toward Illilouette Creek. The 370-foot Illilouette Fall can be heard from the trail but not seen because it is tucked so tightly into the canyon. To catch a glimpse, you’ll have to take a short spur trail. But be careful. A guardrail that used to be here gave way to a rockfall years ago.

The trail continues downhill, crossing Illilouette Creek on a bridge, before climbing the ridge that separates the Illilouette drainage from the Merced River. Along the way you’ll pass Panorama Point (reached via an unsigned spur trail), another airy perch that has been weakened by rockfall.

As you continue climbing, the rounded hulk of Half Dome slowly starts to peak above the canopy. Step by step, it keeps getting bigger until you see the entire south face. About this time, you reach a plateau and a trail junction. Stay left.

From here, the views vanish for a while as the Panorama Trail makes a switchbacking descent to meet the John Muir Trail 0.2 miles from the top of Nevada Fall. You’re now about 3 miles from Yosemite Valley on the Muir Trail and a little less via the Mist Trail. Take the Muir Trail down. Your knees will thank you later.

Upon reaching the Valley floor, it’s still about three miles to the Four Mile Trail trailhead. If you’ve had enough hiking, take the Valley Shuttle to the Yosemite Lodge and stroll the final half-mile to your car by crossing the Merced River on the Swinging Bridge.

What a hike.

Four-Mile Trail

Location: Yosemite National Park

Length: 4.6 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point; easy in downhill direction

Trailheads: Signed turnout along Southside Drive just past Sentinel Beach; arrive before 9 a.m. to ensure a spot. You can also take the El Capitan Shuttle (summer only) from Yosemite Village to stop E-5. For downhill hike, start at Glacier Point.

Panorama Trail

Location: Yosemite National Park

Length: 9.2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley; strenuous in uphill direction

Trailheads: Glacier Point (15.5 miles off Wawona Road/Highway 41 at Chinquapin). For uphill hike, start at Happy Isles Nature Center.

Fees: $20 per vehicle, good for seven days

Maps: USGS, Half Dome; Tom Harrison Maps, Yosemite High Country Details: nps.gov/yose or (209) 372-0200