The Best Day Hike in Yosemite (And Doesn’t Require A Permit)
Though I’ve traveled to more than 20 countries and hiked more than 400 miles, I had no idea that one of the most amazing hikes in the world was in my home state. Yosemite deserves all the fame it gets. It’s one of a kind with the lush quantity and variety of stunning mountain-sized rocks and waterfalls that compare to nothing I’ve seen before.
This hike is strenuous, long, hard, and absolutely the most “bang-for-your-buck” all inclusive hike in Yosemite (that doesn’t require a permit). You will see everything from the best vantage points. You will earn every single view through hundreds of painful steps and you will see Glacier Point, Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls with completely different eyes than the swarms of people who hiked an hour on a paved trail to see the same views.
So here’s the dirt.
Start the hike from the Four Mile Trailhead. This is probably the most strenuous section of the whole hike. It’s steep and gains over 3000 feet. It’s called the Four Mile Trail but it’s really 4.8 miles on this trail. The Four Mile Trail gives you AMAZING views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. You’ll catch yourself taking a picture of the falls at every switchback because the view gets continuously better as you get higher. It even made me rethink hiking to Yosemite Falls because the views of the Falls I got on this trail can’t possibly be beat. At the 3 mile mark, you’ll reach signposts where you’ll split left. It’s about an hour and a half to this point.
After 4.8 miles you’ll reach Glacier Point. Hike the small .2 mile loop to the lookout point and have a snack. You’ll be astonished by glorious panoramic views of Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Yosemite Falls. Soak in every precious view and savor the resting point, you’re only 1/3 of the way through the hike. Here you can refill your water bottles and use the bathroom.
Now you’ll begin the downhill section of the Panorama Trail to Illilouette Falls/Creek. This 2 mile section is slightly downhill so your legs will get a break. This section is also one of the best on the hike (though all the sections are stunning). It’s secluded and you won’t pass very many other people. I can see why it’s called Panorama Trail when you hike this section because the view combines Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls. Don’t let the grandiose views to your left deter you from taking in the subtly beautiful views on your right. After a bit more than an hour, you’ll reach the significantly less crowded and equally as beautiful waterfall, Illilouette Falls. Take a break here because the next section is a tough uphill again but save your snack for the next section.
After you pass Illilouette Falls, you’ll climb the least amazing section (but that’s like saying Florence isn’t pretty compared to Paris—it’s still gorgeous!) for 3.2 miles. From this direction, you won’t get any more views of Half Dome but you will see a dramatic thumb-shaped rock, that seems to be molded out of play-doh, and entire extensions of the valley floor. This section takes nearly two hours upon which you’ll reach the top of Nevada Falls. About fifteen minutes before you reach Nevada Falls there is a large flat rock expanse you walk through. I highly recommend stopping here for a snack instead of at Nevada Falls. Rest here, grab a snack, and hydrate.
Now things really get interesting. This is where you start the Mist Trail. Cross the river, head right, and descend the polished stone steps. Going down the steps you’ll get up close and personal with Nevada Falls. Never in my life have I seen so much water in a waterfall. Tons and tons of gallons of water pour off the cliff’s edge in sheets at speeds so fast that all of the water is white-wash (“It looks like milk and I want to drink it,” Isabelle says). I’m boggled that even though I’ve seen waterfalls in the rain-ridden countries of Europe, nothing I’ve seen comes close to matching the power of Yosemite’s falls. After you finish descending the stairs, prepare to get wet. Now I know why it’s called the Mist Trail. The waterfall comes down with so much power that you get soaked head to toe while walking a mile of it because of the Falls’ eruption from the base. This section is 1.8 miles. Half of it being hiked wet. Finally, you’ll reach Vernal Falls.
This last section is by far the most fun (but also crowded). Imagine Angel’s Landing, now add water. Start this section at the stairs with a handrail. If you are too intimated looking down at the trail, then you can choose to take the wide and dry John Muir trail down. It’s longer and not nearly as fun as the Mist Trail, but if you’re not agile, don’t take the risk on this slippery trail. However, if you’re completely comfortable with a little adventure, the Mist Trail will be a fun experience for you. After the stairs, you’ll start getting wet (although it’s more like sitting in the splash zone at a Sea world Shamu show). You’ll also get your first view of Vernal Falls against the bright green plants, and if you’re lucky, a natural kaleidoscope rainbow or two. Don’t try to pass people and hurt someone, enjoy the views and getting wet. Normally the stairs aren’t all wet, but as I’m hiking it on an extremely wet year, the stairs were more like a waterfall in itself. The plants you walked along make you question if you’re in the tropics. The trail is misty and wet for about half a mile and it takes close to 30 minutes to descend the most amazing section. After you pass that section, it’s another mile down a steep and paved trail to Yosemite Valley.
Tips before you go:
If the shuttle isn’t running and you don’t have someone to drive you back to the starting point then it cannot be hiked in one day.
One option, though, would be to bring bikes, park your car at the start of the Mist Trail, and ride your bike to the start of the Four Mile Trail. Then you could drive back to the start of the Four Mile trail to pick up your pick at the end of the day (don’t forget a lock).
The hike is best when the falls are running so spring or early summer is best. You can check the water levels here.
You can easily hike this the opposite direction but I wouldn’t recommend it.
You will need A LOT OF WATER on this hike. Each person will need about 100 ounces of water. You probably won’t be able to carry all your water but luckily there are water fountains at Glacier Point (mile 5) and at the bottom of Vernal Falls (mile 12). Since we were hiking it in early summer and there were a lot of small tributaries of waterfalls on the trail, we were able to refill our small water bottles very often. We drank the water directly from the source however if you’re concerned about water quality, hike with a water filter.
Pack a lot of food. Personally, down hilling makes us hungry, but for most normal people all the uphill sections will make you ravenous too. We carried a box of cookies, bag of almonds, a roll of salami, and a box of crackers.
Distance and time (hr:min) per section:
Four Mile Trail–Glacier Point: 4.8 miles, 1:45
Glacier Point–Illilouette Falls via Panorama Trail: 2 miles, 1:15
Illilouette Falls–Nevada Falls via Panorama Trail: 3.2 miles, 1:30
Nevada Falls–Vernal Falls via Mist Trail: 1.8 miles, :45 min
Vernal Falls–Yosemite Valley via Mist Trail then John Muir Trail: 1.5 miles, 1:00 (Option: Vernal Falls–Yosemite Valley via John Muir Trail: 2.7 miles, 1:15)
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