Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Yosemite National Park: Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls (Blog Hike #590)

Trails: Mist and John Muir Trails
Hike Location: Yosemite National Park
Geographic Location: eastern end of Yosemite Valley, CA
Length: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A semi-loop along the Merced River passing two gigantic waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Nature Center at Happy Isles in the extreme southeastern corner of Yosemite Valley.  Ideally you can park in the large day-use parking lot near Curry Village (currently known as Half Dome Village due to a trademark dispute).  Realistically, you need to park anywhere you can find a space in eastern Yosemite Valley and either walk or ride the free Valley Shuttle to the Happy Isles trailhead.  Happy Isles is Valley Shuttle stop #16.

The hike: For my general comments on Yosemite National Park, see the previous hike.  The Mist Trail, the first 2 miles of which are described here, is Yosemite’s signature hike, which means two things.  First, everyone who comes to Yosemite seems to end up on the Mist Trail, making this trail the most popular and crowded trail in a very popular and crowded park.  Second, if you are a hiker who comes to Yosemite, you have to hike this trail too.  According to news reports even President Obama hiked part of this trail during his June 2016 Yosemite vacation, and I hiked this trail only 3 days after he did.
Trailhead: Mist Trail
            The shuttle bus will drop you off on the south side of the Merced River, but the Mist Trail starts on the north side of the Merced River.  Thus, your hike starts by crossing the river on the park road bridge.  This road used to be open to all vehicles, but these days only shuttle busses and vehicles with handicapped placards are allowed to be driven here.
            The wide asphalt path heads upstream through a grove of pine trees with the river on your right.  The river’s water level varies from a tranquil stream in the fall to a raging torrent during the snowmelt season.  Thus, the water volume of Vernal and Nevada Falls varies as well.  While it may be helpful to plan a June visit like I did to maximize the water volume, these river waterfalls rarely dry up completely like some of Yosemite’s other waterfalls do.
Asphalt section of Mist Trail
            Over the first 0.2 miles, the Valley Loop Trail exits left to head for Mirror Lake, and you pass a river monitoring station on your right.  This initial segment of trail is nearly flat, and as this hike’s 10/10 difficulty rating suggests it is pretty much the only flat area on this hike.  The trail soon curves left and passes a High Sierra Loop Trail mileage sign featuring trail distances to famous destinations such as Half Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, and even Mount Whitney (211 miles away and well outside the park’s boundaries).  The climb now begins on a moderate to steep grade.  The trail threads its way between Grizzly Peak’s nearly vertical cliffs rising to the left and the river, which is now many feet below you to the right.
Upper Yosemite Fall
            As you begin to gain elevation out of Happy Isles, a view of Upper Yosemite Fall materializes between the granite cliffs over your shoulders.  Some cascades appear in the river as the asphalt trail navigates through some boulder fields.  At 0.6 miles, the park’s best view of Illilouette Fall appears up a side ravine across the river.  At 370 feet tall, Illilouette Fall would be a show-stopper at most parks, but it is only a warm-up act at Yosemite.
Illilouette Fall
            More climbing comes before a brief descent to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, which is reached 1 mile and 350 feet of elevation gain into the hike.  Standing on this bridge and looking upstream gives this hike’s first view of Vernal Fall, hence the bridge’s name.  Crowds tend to congregate here, and people in below average physical condition sometimes turn around here.  Some rocks make for nice places to sit and rest for the remainder of the climb, and a drinking fountain at the far side of the bridge provides the last chance to top off your water bottle.  The drinking fountain was a popular amenity on my visit: I hiked this trail on a hot early afternoon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 90’s.
View from Vernal Fall footbridge
            Now back on the south side of the Merced River, climbing a couple of switchbacks brings you to a trail intersection at 1.2 miles.  The Mist Trail continues straight here while the John Muir Trail exits right.  The John Muir Trail offers an alternate route to the top of Nevada Fall, and signs identify it as the winter route for reasons to be seen in a few minutes.  I chose to form a loop by continuing straight here and using the trail going right as a return route, thus hiking up the Mist Trail and coming back down the John Muir Trail.
            The asphalt trail surface turns to dirt and rock just past this trail intersection.  The Merced River becomes rockier with more cascades as you approach the base of Vernal Fall.  At 1.3 miles, you exit the forest to pass around a rock outcrop and begin climbing the 600 granite steps for which this trail is infamous.  The steps are the hardest part of this hike: some of them are more than 1 foot tall, and the trail gains nearly 400 feet of elevation over the next 0.2 miles.
Climbing the granite steps
If you are hiking at high river levels like I was, this point marks your entrance to Vernal Fall’s spray zone, and now you start to learn why this trail is called the Mist Trail.  Some people bring ponchos to wear while hiking through the waterfall’s spray, but I found that the cool snowmelt-fed mist felt refreshing on a hot summer day.  Footing can be an issue: not only does the mist make the granite steps slippery, but also water runs down the steps and collects in puddles that must be waded through.  In the winter the mist can freeze, thus forcing park officials to close the trail and send hikers up the winter route you passed earlier.  On the bright side, the open area offers fantastic views of Vernal Fall, and the view back down toward Yosemite Valley is not bad either.
Vernal Fall
After a few hundred feet you exit the mist by reaching land that is more beside the waterfall than down from it.  Many people use this point as a staging area for the steepest steps, which come next.  The steep, narrow set of steps carved from the granite take you to the top of Vernal Fall, and an iron fence along the narrowest part of trail provides protection against falling down the sheer cliff.
At 1.5 miles, you reach an overlook perched on the bare granite at the top of Vernal Fall.  This overlook provides a fantastic view back down the Merced River, as sheer granite cliffs line the tight river valley.  Happy Isles and Yosemite Valley lie 1000 feet below, but they are not visible from here due to a bend in the valley.  Take some time up here and enjoy the visual fruits of your labor.
View from top of Vernal Fall
Most people turn around at the top of Vernal Fall.  However, Nevada Fall, another gigantic waterfall, lies less than 2 miles upstream, and you have already done most of the required climbing to get a good view from its base.  Thus, this hike continues up the Mist Trail, which now parallels the Merced River on bare granite.  Note that a restroom building is located to the right here if it is needed.
The rocky Mist Trail above Vernal Fall
The trail continues up the south bank of the Merced River on a rocky but fairly flat course.  The sheer granite faces of Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap appear ahead and to the left.  At 1.7 miles, the upper end of the signed winter route comes in from the right.  The trail exiting right also leads to Clark Point, and this description will use it as a return route later in the hike.  For now, continue straight to keep heading toward Nevada Fall.
Soon you cross the Merced River again on another wide wooden footbridge.  This area is known as Silver Apron.  Another 0.2 miles of gradual climbing over slightly rocky trail brings you to a rock outcrop that gives a fantastic view of Nevada Fall.  At a height of 594 feet, Nevada Fall is the tallest waterfall on the Merced River.  The waterfall’s name comes from its location close to the Sierra Nevada mountains and upstream from Vernal Fall (“vernal” means spring, so this waterfall represents winter because it comes before spring).  Take some time to enjoy this second helping of giant waterfalls.
Nevada Fall, as seen from the Mist Trail
From this point, several options present themselves.  The easiest option is to simply retrace your steps back down the Mist Trail to Happy Isles, but this option will take you back through the uber-crowded Vernal Fall area.  Ahead, the Mist Trail keeps going for another mile to the top of Nevada Fall, at which point you can pick up the John Muir Trail back down to form a lollipop loop.  However, such a route requires an additional 700 feet of elevation gain and many more narrow, steep granite steps, so it should only be attempted by fit, energetic, and well-prepared hikers.  A compromise option and the one described here is to retrace your steps to the winter route at the top of Vernal Fall and follow the winter route back down.  The winter route requires another 350 feet of elevation gain, but it gets far less traffic than the Mist Trail near Vernal Fall.
Executing the third option suggested above, after re-crossing the river at Silver Apron, angle left to begin climbing on the winter route.  The entire trail from Silver Apron to Clark Point is a set of hot, sunny, rocky switchbacks.  The grade is never too steep, but it is persistent.  En route to Clark Point you pass an overlook that gives a nice side view of Vernal Fall.  Distant views of Nevada Fall will also be obtained.  From this angle, stark, rocky Liberty Cap stands just to the left of the waterfall.
Side view of Vernal Fall

Nevada Fall, as seen from the John Muir Trail
At 2.8 miles, you reach Clark Point, this hike’s highest elevation, and an intersection with the John Muir Trail.  Angle right to begin heading back down toward the Merced River.  Unlike the Mist Trail, which is hiker-only, the John Muir Trail is also open to horses, and I had to step over quite a bit of horse manure on my visit.  I also got passed by a train of horses and mules labeled as a National Park Service backcountry patrol.  Hikers are required to yield to horses, so step to the side of the trail and hide your staff (hiking staffs can spook horses) if you see a horseback rider approaching.
The John Muir Trail wastes no time in beginning its descent down a long sequence of switchbacks.  Unlike the trail up to Clark Point, these switchbacks are mostly shaded, which keeps you cooler on a hot sunny day but also blocks most views.  The trail winds endlessly down, and finally the Merced River becomes audible.  At 3.7 miles, the horse trail exits left just before you close the loop at the bottom of the winter route.  A left turn and 1.2 miles of retracing your steps down the asphalt section of the Mist Trail returns you to Happy Isles and completes the hike.  While you are in Happy Isles, the Nature Center at Happy Isles features a short, flat 0.5 mile nature trail if you want to squeeze in a little more hiking in this corner of Yosemite Valley.

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