I’ll admit it, the idea of hiking up a trail you can drive to the top of at times is a little strange but beyond the solid workout and sense of accomplishment, there’s something to be said for taking the scenic route– that something of course being the scenery.
Yosemite Valley is home to many incredible hikes: There’s the Mist Trail, Half Dome Hike, The Upper Falls and on and on but don’t underestimate 4 mile. In winter (also early spring and potentially late fall), the road to Glacier Point closes making 4 Mile into quite a popular spot, that is until snow or ice shut it down as well, but even come summer, it’s a pretty incredible experience and one with a much less strenuous route around, one that can be remarkably light on crowds.
Along the way up the actually 4.8 mile one-way trail (I guess a decimal point sounded off in the naming process), you’ll have incredible views of El Captain, the Cathedral Spires and of course the valley floor as it drops further and further below you. Near the top, Half Dome and the eastern mountain comes into view until you emerge out of the trees to stand at Glacier Point. Even the summer crowds who “huffed it” from the parking lot a few hundred yards away can’t take away the cool accomplishment of the view up. And hey, if you’re not quite up for 3,200′ of climbing, you can always grab the shuttle (or a good friend) to Glacier Point and just hike the trail down instead.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, Lodging, Trail Facilities
This is by far one of the most accessible trails starting right from Southside Drive (the main road through Yosemite, heading into the valley.) You’ll find a couple dozen parking spots along the road with perhaps 50 more just beyond the trailhead at Swinging Bridge. You can also catch the shuttle there or bike on over easily from around the valley. Those looking for a backpacking trip or longer day hike can loop all the way from Happy Isles and the Mist Trail, it all connects — condition dependent of course.
While you won’t find any facilities right at the trailhead, there are restrooms by Swinging Bridge. You’ll also find more bathrooms, running water and food at Glacier Point (hours are 9-5 last I checked and of course only when the road is open in busy season.)
Yosemite Valley is incredibly popular in summer so lodging can be tricky with campsites booking out as soon as they go on sale and hotels often filling up. As an alternative, consider Crane Flat or Hodgdon Meadow along highway 120 as well as out of park camping or hotels. My advice is always to start the trail early to beat the heat, the crowds and the fight for parking. Hitting the trails around sunrise makes for some incredible views on the way up as well. When you’re done, head to Half Dome Village for pizza and a beer.
Note: It is possible to shuttle to Glacier Point either on the buses (they can fill up, book in advance), with a friend driving up or with two cars though it’s an hour each way to / from the valley. As such, this trail can be hiked just up, just down, or as an out & back.
What To Expect On 4 Mile Trail
I believe 4 Mile Trail was paved once upon a time and while much of the asphalt has eroded away, the trail its self is incredible approachable despite it’s significant climb. That’s not to say this trail is easy or anything to take lightly — 3,200′ over around 4 miles is a pretty considerable rise over run ratio and can make for a solid day’s workout. However, is is fairly graded with plenty of switchbacks and winding paths as opposed to the direct and rather steep incline of the Mist Trail or going up to Upper Yosemite Falls. The pavement below your feet is a mix of dirt, rock and some boulders though few of the granite steps found on most other Yosemite Valley trails.
The trail its self starts right from the Valley floor and after a short walk on flat terrain to its base, rises consistently as it snakes it way up. You’re in the trees all the way to Glacier Point though much of the middle of the trail is in the open so expect a warm day in summer and certainly layer on the sunscreen. Also keep in mind that there is no water along the trail so you’ll want to pack plenty for a comfortable and safe day (3+ liters per person is my rule.)
Hitting the pavement, the trail is fairly consistent though it does start out a bit lighter as you walk up the first mile and change under dense tree coverage. In the early morning, this is a nice, cool walk and a great way to warm on up without facing the heat of the day directly. Emerging from this protection, you’ll find yourself looking at an impressive view of El Captain but don’t take too long of a stop here, there are many more views (and better ones) of it to come as you continue on to the switchbacks. Winding up in the increasingly exposed terrain, the trail gradually starts to head east though it’s not until just before Union Point that you lose sight of the western valley views.
As you approach the 2/3rds mark, you’ll turn past a large pile of rocks and pass a small metal gate used in winter to block off the upper trail which has both ice and avalanche risks. Just a few more switchbacks and you’ll find yourself approaching the marked junction at Union Point. It’s worth the brief walk to the point for a view over to Half Dome and likely as a good final break spot before you push on up towards the top.
From this point out, the trail will head east and after walking around some of the more exposed ledges (with a great view of Yosemite Falls), returns to thick tree cover and much softer terrain as you re-enter the forest around Glacier Point. While you may be tired through this stretch, it’s a really tranquil experience, especially in spring as small streams roll on down the hills around you until at last, you see the side of the Glacier Point gift shop.
It’s just a quick walk from the edge of the trail over to Glacier Point to take in the epic view (and probably lunch.)
If you’re still feeling adventurous, continue on up the trail another 1.6 miles / 700 vertical-feet to the top of Sentinel Dome for an even more impressive view of the entire valley and surrounding mountain ranges. This is especially practical if you’re catching a ride back down from a friend or on the tour bus.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back or Shuttle It
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Yosemite Valley @ 4 Mile Trailhead
- Distance: ~9.6 miles r/t
- Duration: 5-8 hours
- Elevation Gain: >3,250′
- Facilities: Restrooms and water at Glacier Point (in summer)
- Water: At Glacier Point (in summer only)
- Crowds: Moderate
- Cost: Yosemite NPS Entrance Fee
- Permits: None Required