Which direction to go?
Either direction you go in involves starting near 8000 feet, descending to Pate Valley at roughly 4400 ft. and then climbing back out again. Many opt to start at the slightly higher elevation in Tuolumne Meadows (~8600 at Lembert Dome), hike downhill through most of the canyon to Pate Valley (~4400 ft) and then endure the steep, sun-drenched switch backs up to White Wolf (~7760 ft). Overall you're headed downhill, right? However, consider the reverse trip. If you start at White Wolf in the early part of the day, you can coast down the switch-backs (maybe difficult for sensitive knees) enjoying beautiful views down into Pate Valley, and then spread the return climb to elevation over the gentler and somewhat rolling terrain, and ending with the relatively flat ~6 miles from Glen Aulin to Lembert Dome parking. Either way, you'll enjoy spectacular scenery, and if you've left yourself enough time, multiple opportunities to stop and relax by the picturesque river.
From White Wolf Lodge, warm up during the first ~4 miles over gently descending forested terrain, then begin the steep descent down into Pate Valley. You can see the sharp switch-backs and incredible views in some of the gallery images. Pate Valley itself is reputed to harbor many rattlesnakes, but we didn't see any on our trip through. A short distance past the trail junction that leads to Rogers Canyon, the trail climbs up on the north side of the river to bypass Muir Gorge, and then descends gently back down to river level. All along the trail, you enjoy spectacular views of soaring granite cliffs. The steepest climbing, in this direction, is punctuated by the discovery of the successive named cascades - Waterwheel, LeConte and California Falls, finally emerging at Glen Aulin and then the relatively flat trip up to Lembert Dome parking.
How long to take?
Strong day hikers cover this trail in a single long day. We started at White Wolf and dropped down into Pate Valley on the first day, then hiked up to Glen Aulin and out on the second. However, if you're going to carry an overnight pack, we'd recommend taking more time. It would probably be easy to spend 10 days enjoying and exploring the canyon, and we often found ourselves wishing we could stop more often to take advantage of it. More typically, you see parties spending 3-4 days on this hike.