Yosemite National Park
Distance: 15 miles Time: 7-8 hours Type: Round trip
Yosemite Valley - nature's ode to granite, a study in light and a global icon of natural beauty. Given the endless superlatives about Yosemite, its lofty status in the national (and international) imagination and its role as muse for countless photographers (Ansel Adams being merely the master within an entire dedicated sub-genre of landscape photography), expectations can run high when visiting the Valley for the first time. As is often the case, high expectations can also be a burden and some visitors end up leaving disappointed - perhaps because the views did not quite meet their high hopes or because the hordes of visitors were just too much.
The reality, though, is somewhere in between. Yosemite Valley actually occupies only a small part of Yosemite National Park but is by far the most frequented (and, some would say, with good reason). The Valley is undeniably beautiful and you will often find yourself wondering how such perfect vistas could have been created naturally. However, unless you are hanging from a rock on El Capitan or have ended up in the back-country after a wrong turn, it is very difficult to have your 'own' Yosemite Valley: it is the ultimate Disneyland of the American National Parks, a place enjoyed by people from all over the world and a gift for the world to share. Once you accept that you will not be alone here and that nature does not apply filters quite like in the postcards and calendars, you can begin to enjoy the Valley for what it is.
This hike is one of the best in terms of getting an overview (quite literally) of Yosemite Valley in a day. It starts and ends on the floor of the valley at Half Dome Village (where we were camping) and offers some unbeatable highlights, including several waterfalls, views of Half Dome and panoramas over the west and east side of the Valley and beyond. It involves a fairly long, although not steep, ascent to Glacier Point and an equally long - but equally picturesque - descent to the valley floor again. It would not be overly challenging for most walkers and can be completed in a day given an early start.
The route essentially uses the Panorama Trail to gain Half Dome from the valley floor and then uses the Four Mile Trail for the descent. Depending on where you are staying, you could either walk to join with both of these trails or use the shuttle system which ferries people along the length of the valley floor.
More particularly, the hike connects as follows: walk from Half Dome Village to the Vernal Falls trail-head (about 1 mile), hike up to Vernal Falls (1.2 miles), continue on to Nevada Fall (1.5 miles), then join the Panorama Trail which runs until Glacier Point (4.1 miles), connect with the Four Mile trail for the descent to the valley floor (4.8 miles) and finish along the Valley floor back to Half Dome Village (about 2.3 miles).
Vernal Falls can be visited in its own right as a fairly short walk and, although popular, is a real stunner. Above the falls, you can explore along the river edge and rest at various beauty spots. The crowds thin out somewhat as you continue on to Nevada Falls, which is even taller and arguably more impressive. At this point, most people turn back and return by the same trail, so thereafter you have more space to yourself. Panorama Trail (only open in summer) follows within fairly close proximity of the cliff edge and offers, as the name would suggest, superlative views into and across the valley, including to Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and Half Dome beyond. After a mile or so you make a brief descent to Illilouette Falls and then climb up toward Glacier Point.
Glacier Point is connected to the road and serviced by the shuttle system so here you rejoin the crowds. The panorama now covers both the east side of the Park as well as the west side (previously hidden) and from here you can see across to Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls. You could actually take the shuttle bus back to the valley floor but, for a full day's walk, continue on using Four Mile Trail, which descends steeply through the forest and offers sumptuous views of El Capitan and the Cathedral Spires to the west.
You will return along the valley floor with the late afternoon sun. Be sure to venture to the river's edge or to the meadows and remember to look up - yet more sublime views await.
Here's a link to a map of the hiking trails: