If you love waterfalls (and really, who doesn’t) and don’t mind getting a little wet to stand right beside not one but two incredible ones, than the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls is for you. Unfortunately it’s not just for you; on a nice spring or summer day literally thousands of people make this hike so while it’s one to experience, it’s not one to find solitude on. None the less, with an early start (think sunrise, or even before it), a Spring visit to the Mist Trail is well worth some crowded moments.
Speaking of Spring, the Mist Trail is fun at any time that it’s open but it’s many fold better when the falls are raging. This usually means mid spring to perhaps early summer as the snow in the upper mountain melts. By late fall, the streams slow considerably and the falls become a lot smaller. Just saying.
Warning: Getting in the river around the falls, even well above them is a bad idea. The extremely swift moving current and slick rocks have led to many deaths so stay on the shore!
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, Lodging, Trail Facilities
One of the reasons the Mist Trail is so popular is that it’s so accessible. Located in the back of Yosemite Valley at Happy Isles, the trail starts just a short shuttle ride from all the National Park’s main stops, campsites and hotels. This makes it easy to get to, easy to get a meal after, and easy to stay near, well, if you plan in advance — it’s not just the trails in Yosemite that get busy, places to stay can book up months in advance.
The trailhead can be reached best by shuttle which drops you off right at Happy Isles though you can also drive about half a mile down the road as well which is helpful if you want to get started before the bus crowds roll in. Here you’ll find a couple well used restrooms (kudos to the amazing park service for keeping them running) and a place to fill up on water. In summer, there should also be water and restrooms 0.8 miles into the hike at the Vernal Fall Footbridge though check for signs, the remote location mean these are closed for a long winter and at other times.
As for for snacks or other trail supplies, Yosemite Valley has both a general store and mountain shop while Half Dome Village (just down from the parking lot) has a smaller store and another climbing shop. Between the four you can get just about everything you’d need for any length hike.
Gear for Hiking the Trail
While the Mist Trail is not a massive undertaking nor exactly the back-country wild, it’s also not Disneyland. You’ll be in a remote enough place, hike over rough and uneven terrain that may also be wet and slick. The weather can change quickly, you may get wet on a cool day and find yourself quite cold or you may be far too hot. As such, you really do want to prepare for this hike bringing along the full 10 essentials including plenty of water (you can’t drink what’s on the trail unless you treat it), snacks to keep you fueled up for a several hour outing, layers for the changing conditions, sunblock for the intense exposure, and good socks / shoes for the trail under your feet.
Avoid cotton, carry more gear than you think you need, and ideally get something waterproof for your feet. Trekking poles also come in very handy on this trail (gloves, microspikes and full winter wear in the early season, it gets icy / snowy on this one.)
What To Expect On the Trail to the Footbridge
Heading out from the shuttle stop, the trail actually starts on the road as you walk over the Merced River before taking a right onto the well marked and initially very wide trail. Things start out flat for a few minutes of walking until you reach the real trailhead and marker sign shown above. On a busy weekend you may find volunteers or the PSAR team out around here sharing information about the trailhead, say hi, they don’t bite.
Initially even the real trail doesn’t seem like what you’d expect as it’s well, paved. Paved however does not mean level, flat or gentle and while some people do push strollers up the trail, this is no place for anything with wheels (both for the incline and you know, the crowds.) It’s only about 400′ in elevation gain to the Footbridge but with a little downhill on the way and the flat section before, this comes in a few rather steep sections.
Still, it’s a pretty trail. In spring, you’ll have the company of a roaring river just below you and any time of year, expect some nice views of Yosemite’s famous granite boulders along with the typical forest views. Tempting as it may be to drink up some of the cool water that often runs down the trail, don’t do so unless you have a way to treat it first. Before long, you’ll dip down and reach the footbridge where you get the first real view of the falls to come.
The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls
Crossing the Vernal Fall Footbridge (which means passing through an endless sea of selfies), you’ll run into the last treated water on the trail and the only restrooms until the top of the falls (again, check for signs as both of these can be closed.) This area is a popular break point for many though you’re just barely into the hike so I say keep on pushing.
From here to the top of Vernal Falls, you’ll be right alongside the river though the Mist part doesn’t start for a ways. Views of the water off to your right are constant through the forest while the trail shifts from paved to less paved to dirt and eventually rock. As you head on up a rather gentle slope (don’t worry, that won’t last long), you’ll reach a gate and junction point. In winter and at other points, the Mist Trail is closed here as the granite steps above get very, very slick so if it is gated, respect that. To your right is the John Muir Trail (JMT) which is a longer way up to the top of either falls and a good way to avoid some crowds coming down. It’s also a good way to save your knees if you’re not ready for big stone steps going up.
Passing the junction, it’s step time and will remain so all the way to the top of the first falls. Yosemite trail builders were not shy in their use of granite nor in the directness of it. At 6’2″, I find some of the steps along this trail to just about require a hand for support so if you’re thinking stair-stepper, step it up (sorry, I had to.)
As you continue up the long series of steps, you’ll notice the trail start to get wet (assuming again that you’re hiking when there’s still water around.) Some people dawn ponchos for the flights to come and on a cool day, a rain jacket is quite helpful (hypothermia sucks) but on a warmer day, non-cotton layers will dry out just fine.
Continue through the wettest flight of stairs, one more that starts to dry off and pause for the epic view of Vernal Falls right ahead. From here, the trail dips back into the forest and a very long, very steep, very evil flight of stairs nearly to the top. Take a brief break or push on through until you reach the rock wall that lies directly above you. A far more narrow staircase cuts to the left making for some negotiating with downhill hikers but relax, this is the last steps to the top of the falls.
When you emerge from the top, head on down the slope to the edge of the waterfalls (and stay behind the railing.)
Vernal Falls to the top of Nevada Falls
The top of Vernal Falls is a very common destination for day hikers and with a mix of shaded spots and sunny ones, expect large crowds to be hanging out here for the day. If you head down the trail (just follow the river to your right), you’ll find a couple vault restrooms which are the last ones before the top of Nevada Falls. There is no drinkable water but it should be no problem to find a supply from the river to treat if you brought a filter or tablets.
From here, the Mist Trail meanders a bit as you cut away from the river, heading up a small hill, across some rock slabs and meeting up with an offshoot of the JMT. You can use this as a long loop back down or up if you want to avoid the next set of steps either way. Otherwise, just continue on to cross over the river on a large bridge with a very impressive view below. You’ll head back away from the river again as you re-enter the forest entirely and gain some shade and some dirt ground for a bit.
Walking through the forest, the trail get get a little difficult to follow with plenty of side routes made by people seeking views of the river / waterfalls or just a place to break but if you look further ahead, it should be clear where to go. This area is also fairly level and makes for a nice break before the switchbacks and stone steps to come.
The flats do not last long before you start back up the hillside with some partial views of Nevada Falls starting to emerge through the trees. As these fade away, the trail changes from dirt to rock though you remain on switchbacks rather than straight stairs all the way to the top and that is a notable difference to your legs from what’s below. Still, with little shade for much of the remaining trail, this can be a tiring climb in the heat of a Yosemite summer day.
As you wind up, you can fake a break excuse many times with the views of Nevada Falls off to your right. It’s a bit of an odd perspective for photos but a great one for the scale of this waterfall which seems to dwarf the impressive Vernal Falls!
You’ll know that you’re getting close when the switchbacks re-enter the forest yet again and you get some shade for the final several twists back and forth. The trail takes one last curve before clearly breaking from switchbacks all together and drops you off at an opening a short ways before the falls where you will see two more vault restrooms off to your left. Continue right towards the top of the falls. The river runs right by the trail here with a bridge taking you over it though there’s a great viewpoint before you cross that’s located just below the rocks you can see (it’s got a rail and is developed, just not obviously clear.)
Bonus: From the top of the falls to many more trails
Enjoy a well earned lunch, photo break as you stare down at the roaring falls dropping off the cliffside. Impressive as Vernal Falls are, Nevada really puts them to shame both in its size but also the viewpoints you get to explore around it. Not all have rails so mind your footing but certainly do take in the different perspective and hey, you may even catch a view down to where you start from!
When you’re ready to continue on, you have a few options: you can head back to the restrooms and further up the trail you were on where it’s about a mile across fairly flat ground to Little Yosemite for some added scenery or to reach back country spots like Half Dome, Cloud Cap, etc. You could head across the Nevada Falls bridge to take the JMT back down and avoid some of the crowds or use it to connect with far longer trails going out towards Glacier Point (seriously, it’s a number more miles but scenic ones.) And of course, you can retrace your steps for the most direct — and knee busting way back.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Happy Isles
- Distance: ~5.4 miles r/t
- Duration: 4-5 hours
- Elevation Gain: >2,000′
- Facilities: Restrooms along the trail.
- Water: At the TH and again at the footbridge (seasonal)
- Crowds: Crazy heavy. Like thousands of people.
- Cost: None
- Permits: None