a long hike in the mist
With only one full day in Yosemite Valley at our disposal, we sought to make the most of it by staying out on the trails all day. The park ranger at our campsite recommended an ascent up the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, which promised gorgeous views of the Valley, and a descent down the equally scenic-sounding Panorama Trail.
S at first had some reservations, which were reinforced when we came upon a sign that called the Four Mile Trail, described as “thigh-burning” by Lonely Planet, the steepest path out of the Valley. Those worries were temporarily put to rest once we set foot on the trail. The Four Mile Trail – actually closer to five miles, as it’s 4.6 miles from the trailhead to Glacier Point and we also had to walk 5-10 minutes from the bus stop to the trailhead – is a continuous, moderately difficult ascent that offers excellent views of the Valley floor and Yosemite Falls, which become more heart-stopping the higher one climbs.
Because we had to move campsites, it was 11am by the time we actually hit the trail. We took our time on the way up, stopping frequently to take photos, and taking a lunch break right before reaching the 3-mile marker. By that time, thick clouds had begun to descend on the mountaintops, and once the trail turned away from the Valley views and into the mountain, we found ourselves hiking in a mist-covered forest.
A placard at Glacier Point details the major landmarks that can be seen from the lookout. All we saw when we peered out over the rail was soupy fog. It was cold and, with the exception of one or two other hikers, Glacier Point was completely deserted. What looked like a small chalet or convenience store had been roped off to prevent entry, and the parking lot, whose existence came as a surprise to us, was completely empty. We did not linger, and set off on the 8.2 mile Panorama Trail.
In a way it was good that we couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet in front of us. Had we actually had the panoramic views the trail name implied there is a good chance we would not have been able to return to our campsite before nightfall. As it was cloudy, we simply put our heads down and hiked through the misty trees, only stopping once in a while to grab a snack or drink some water.
The Panorama Trail connects with the John Muir Trail at Nevada Fall. We could hear the rumble of the massive waterfall from miles away, which hinted at its immensity. When we hiked out to the top of the fall, the same mist that had enveloped us at Glacier Point once again obscured the view. The thunderous crash of water was especially ominous when we stood at the edge of the railed cliff atop the fall because we could not see more than a few feet in front of us, so it felt as if the water was plunging noisily into an endless chasm.
It was only three miles from Nevada Fall back to the Valley, but at this point we had walked at least ten miles and S began to develop a pain in her knee, which slowed down our pace considerably. From Nevada Fall we hiked to Vernal Fall – the continuation of the same river a thousand feet lower down. The clouds finally broke at the lower elevation, rewarding us with a spectacular view of the massive Vernal Fall crashing into a rapid stream that snaked through the valley several hundred feet below.
The views were dizzyingly beautiful, but also gave S more fuel for concern. It was going on 7pm, and the day’s remaining light was fading. Her leg was seriously hurting and we still had close to two miles to hike. Moreover, the trail seemed to peter out at the railing that separated the flat rock on which we stood from the cascading water below. We looked around and spotted a gate, but the path that lay on the other side gave us pause.
Unless we wanted to retrace our steps to return to the John Muir Trail, the only way down from Vernal Fall to the Valley was via the Mist Trail – a steep, narrow rock staircase that had been made slick by the mist kicked up by the giant waterfall. The precipitous path was crammed in against an overhanging rock slab on one side and a rickety-looking railing on the other that looked so sketchy in the fading light that it must have literally scared S’s pain away.
We finished the last mile of the trail a bit after 8pm – more than nine hours after we had started – and walked out to the road as night fell on Yosemite. Fortunately, the shuttle buses were still running and one pulled up just as we reached the bus stop. The day had almost everything we could have hoped for – awesome hiking, a bit of adventure, and incredible waterfall views. The only thing that was missing was the bird’s eye view of the Valley.