Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome and Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point. Not a bad view from the trailhead.
Yosemite Week on Hike Mt Shasta has been a lot of fun for me write and has been a good opportunity to continue ruminating on my favorite place on Earth. Now, at the end of the week I want to close with what I believe to be the best trail to be trod. Yosemite’s Panorama Trail is, in my estimation, the most spectacular trail on the planet. When you consider the length and difficulty against the amount of scenery and the quality of the scenery traveled by the trail, it is difficult, in my mind, to surpass what is offered by this incredible hike.
What makes this trail so great? The Panorama begins with staggering views from Glacier Point at the trailhead and maintains those for a couple of miles during the descent to Illilouette Creek. The High Sierra, including Mt. Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite, as well as the underrated Clark Range are visible for the duration of this section. Below the jagged peaks are Half Dome, Little Yosemite Valley and the Grand Staircase over which the Merced Rivers tumbles, forming the superlative Vernal and Nevada Falls. One arrives at the bottom of the canyon just in time to get an incredible view of Illilouette Falls, backed by the glittering southern face of Half Dome. From there it is on to Panorama Point and its unusual but exception view of Yosemite Valley, including stupendous Yosemite Falls. Half Dome continues to be ubiquitous throughout the traverse of the rim of Panorama Cliff and Clouds Rest also makes dramatic appearances. The trail eventually descends down to the top of Nevada Falls, the views now taking in the trails point of embarkation, Glacier Point. After crossing over the river just as it jettisons off the cliff to form Nevada Falls, there is an opportunity to observe the falls from a dizzying ledge. Then it is on to the climb down 600 feet alongside the thundering falls. At the bottom, another great view of the falls before heading on to the Silver Apron and Emerald Pool. These herald the arrival at the top of Vernal Falls and another cliff-edge view of the massive waterfall. Next is the iconic trip down the Mist Trail, first through a long crack in the rock then down steep granite steps, all the while being blasted by the cooling mist cast upwards when Vernal Falls explodes on the rocks after plummeting 318 feet. One final look at the falls as you cross the river on a sturdy bridge and then down alongside the still tumultuous Merced River. As the trail rounds the lowest shoulder of Half Dome or more accurately Sierra Point (a subject for another article someday) looking up Illilouette Gorge, one can catch a sliver glimpse of Illilouette Falls. From there it is down to Happy Isles and the end of an incredible journey.
It is not just that the Panorama Trail visits all these spots, but the way in which it does it. At almost no point does the trail travel through terrain that lacks views or waterfalls or geologic interest. In between the points described are constantly changing variations of the views. Where the views are obscured by trees, they are at points where the shade is welcome and one is almost exhausted from the visual feast. The trail itself is also engaging, traveling along steep cliffs and narrow ledges, across creeks and over waterfalls. It is all engineered in pleasing and exciting ways, adding another memorable dimension to what is already an utterly spectacular trail.
My brother and I have long had a measuring system by which to gauge the quality of a trail. We don’t have an official name but one could call it the “bang for your buck” scale. Simply put, how much scenery, how good is the scenery and how much fun is the trail for the effort put in. He and I have hiked all over America and the world, but the Panorama has yet to be surpassed on this scale. For the amount of effort put in, it is almost inconceivable that a trail could offer more. It is no surprise that such an amazing hike would be found in Yosemite.
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