Hey there friends (or new visitor, either works.) I’ve been beyond remiss at keeping up on my adventures lately and owe plenty of writing time to the blog gods to catch back up. To start things off, I want to welcome in Spring and one of the best sights in the world — Yosemite’s famed Vernal and Nevada Falls.
The calendar may technically read spring but winter was kind to California this season (about time) which means we are both in for one epic waterfall season and some winter like conditions to get there for the time being. I bring this up early to preference this post with a simple but important warning: come prepared for the conditions. Even a popular and straight forward trail like the trek to Nevada Falls can be anything but when you add a little, and especially a lot, of snow.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s head to the waterfalls!
Heading into the park just after dawn (which I always suggest to avoid the crowds at least for a few hours), it was clear from the first turn past El Capitan that this should be a great year for Yosemite. Bridalveil Falls is roaring. Upper Yosemite Falls visible at every turn. With a first time visitor joining me for the day, I knew I set the right impression.
With snow still covering the sides of highway 120, I figured we would be in for an exciting day and no surprise to learn that the Mist Trail was still closed. As it would turn out, the winter route up the JMT was no tame dirt path either.
Hitting the trailhead at Happy Isles in the cool morning air is one of the best ways to start a day. Light traffic on the trail and a clear path up to the foot bridge on the widely paved trail made for easy going before we caught our first view from the falls. From down below, it can be hard to tell how well things are flowing over the drops but the water below our feet as we crossed the bridge was a great reminder that Spring time is one of the best times in Yosemite.
While the trail may have started off in its usual, well maintained form, passing the first bathroom (still closed for the season), it was immediately clear just how powerful winter has been. Huge trees and tons of branches cover the path and while they are quite navigable at this point, that too was a reminder not to be out on a trail in stormy weather less any of those fall your way.
Taking the JMT / winter route started off easy enough but it is only a few switchbacks before that changes and the trail very suddenly goes from dirt to packed snow. Well protected by the valley walls, sun exposure here must be brief as the snow stayed firm if not icy all day long, even into the afternoon.
At first, this was easily bootable in winter gear but microspikes and yaktrax helped add some helpful stability as the path narrowed from trail to bootpack. It took just a few switchbacks for the snow to build on up to the point that switchbacks no longer existed and the bootpath began to ascend directly up the face.
With heavy packs ready for a day of unknowns, we elected to gear up in full and practice some crampon moves. Microspikes would have sufficed just fine though an ice axe was certainly ideal, especially for the slippery descent in the afternoon. Many tourists retreated, some pressed on in micros and a few daring souls in nothing but sneakers. Sufficient to say the 25-30 degree slope was a lot more sporty than anything I’ve ever “hiked” in the Yosemite Valley… fun!
After ascending the steep slope near Clark Point, the trail turns just enough to see the sun and the snow almost immediately fades with it. There was a decent amount on the final switchbacks below the Nevada Falls bathroom but nothing that needed traction again. Around the upper falls, snow depth had to be a few feet and snowshoes would have certainly been an aid for any backcountry wandering.
In any event, our effort proved worth every extra step. The overlook of Vernal Falls alone was one of the best flows I’ve ever seen. While we skipped the extra walking to the edge, just hearing the river roar on by as we hiked down to the bridge and back to the Mist Trail was amazing.
Wandering on up from Vernal to Nevada Falls, the sights just got more impressive. I think I’ve said it 3 times now but Spring waterfalls in Yosemite are just one of those sights you have to get to if you can.
Once we hit the bridge, it really was smooth sailing save for a little snow and ice under the shaded trees just below the top of the upper Mist Trail. The giant granite steps didn’t feel as hard as usual, even with our heavy winter packs, thanks to the amazing view off to the side — and the breeze!
Topping out the snow covered final switchbacks to the level ground around Nevada Falls (and hey, one of the bathrooms is open and completely stocked, thanks NPS!), we had the place almost to ourselves. Just a few boot steps stood ahead with one very distinct bear pattern following them in almost perfect sync, or perhaps it was the other way around though hopefully not at the same time.
Stepping over the third bridge to the top of Nevada Falls with untouched snow covering the rocky outcropping while the waters roared over the falls below us, this is what it’s all about.