“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” John Muir
I’ve always wanted to visit California’s Yosemite National Park; famous for its towering granite cliffs, plunging waterfalls and lush meadows. And, as this was also the last point of interest on my US national park tour, I was super keen to do a decent hike.
We arrived in mid-September, about two weeks after a wildfire had ravaged part of the park; smoke was still thick in the air and all the towns leading into the park had huge banners thanking the fire fighters. It was a stark reminder of summers in Australia, where bushfires are always a topic of conversation.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit Yosemite under these circumstances but I was happy that we could bring some business to those who had not only suffered because of the bushfires, but were likely to suffer economically when people stayed away longer than necessary after the fires (and this was also just prior to the US Government shutdown that further affected the park – as well as all national parks in the country).
We choose to hike the Panorama Trail because, as the name suggests, this would offer us some of the best views of the park. We weren’t disappointed. It was one of those hikes where I had to keep pinching myself to make sure it was real – I was completely awestruck by the splendour of nature.
The trail begins at Glacier Point, which is located on the south wall of Yosemite Valley at an elevation of 7214 feet (2199 metres), and the trail winds its way 8.5 miles (13.7km) down to the Yosemite Valley floor. But first, it’s worth spending time at Glacier Point.
The views from here are dizzying; 3214 feet directly above the valley (and Curry Village, where we were staying). But it’s the Half Dome that dominates the outlook. This distinctive granite monument rises to an elevation of 8842 feet and is 87 million years old. And, on this day, it was surrounded by haze from the lingering smoke, which gave it a particularly mysterious quality.
The first part of the hike was downhill to the picturesque Illilouette Fall, where we took a break to enjoy more incredible views. From here, the trail unexpectedly began to climb and I, also unexpectedly, began to struggle. I’m not sure why I was so sluggish, particularly as I’d done a few strenuous hikes in the previous weeks. But it was tough.
Later, as we reached the top of Panorama Cliff, I had to sit down and put my head between my knees. I was light-headed, nauseas and struggling to get my breath. I did wonder if the heavy smoke in the air was giving me problems. But the last time I felt this unwell was hiking on the Inca Trail in Peru. So it was probably the altitude.
Fortunately, it was only a short walk to Nevada Fall where we stopped for lunch and I began to feel better. Again, I’m not sure what the remedy was – taking a break, eating some food, or just being surrounded by such an incredible panorama. Whatever it was, my spirits were lifted and I felt a million times better as we re-commenced our hike.
It was about here that the Panorama Trail joined the John Muir Trail, which made me ridiculously happy.
I love the writings of naturalist John Muir; his descriptions of nature are wonderful and fit well with how I feel about being out in the natural world. I often quote him in my blog, so I was stoked to be walking along a trail named after him.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” John Muir
And, wow, the scenery on this part of the hike was even more breathtaking. The trail skirts the edge of a sheer cliff and there are views back to Nevada Fall, as well as into the valley. It’s no wonder that John Muir fell in love with this place.
The last part of the trail switchbacks through forest before emerging at the wonderful Happy Isles.
W.E. Dennison, Guardian of Yosemite Valley from 1884 to 1887 wrote: “There are three islets… I have named them the Happy Isles, for no one can visit them without for a while forgetting the grinding strife of this world and be happy.”
There are more than 800 miles of hiking trails in Yosemite National Park, but I only had time to hike this one! And I think I chose well. Because out of all the incredible hikes I got to do this year, the Panorama Trail was the most spectacular. I really hope to return here one day.