Hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall & Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park
Mist Trail Route Description
Head south along the flat, paved trail that runs alongside the Merced River. After approximately 200 metres the path veers to the left and a moderate climb commences.
The path now meanders its way along the left edge of the towering granite valley sides during this initial stage of the hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail.
Eventually, the trail begins to descend slightly and then crosses the Merced River via the Vernal Fall footbridge. Now, take a moment to glance upstream and you will catch a glimpse of Vernal Fall for the first time.
Vernal Fall Footbridge to Top of Vernal Fall
Once across the footbridge, the path continues to climb once more. Then, after around 315 metres the John Muir Trail leads sharply off to the right. It is at this point that you have a choice to make…
Option 1: Turn right and follow the John Muir Trail to the top of Nevada Fall, returning via the Mist Trail
Option 2: Continue straight onto the Mist Trail (this is the official Mist Trail trailhead) to the top of Nevada Fall, returning via the John Muir Trail
We selected option 2 for the Mist Trail John Muir loop as witnessing both the falls as you climb towards them was a big part of the experience for us.
Upon passing the John Muir Trail turn-off, the Mist Trail remains paved as it passes through pine trees that adorn the steep valley side.
Soon, the canopy clears as the path breaks out of the trees, now exposing the dramatic, sheer granite cliff towering upwards to the right. Meanwhile, off to the left of the trail is an abrupt drop-off to the Merced River below.
Soon, Vernal Fall comes into sight and as it does the first of 600 granite steps commence that will lead you to the top of the cascade.
It is also at this point that the mist generated from the falls will begin to hit you, especially if you are enjoying the Vernal Fall hike in peak runoff (April-June).
As a consequence, the steps can be incredibly slippery. We experienced the Yosemite Mist Trail hike in early May and with the temperature hovering around zero, a layer of ice had formed across many of the steps, making the climb far more treacherous.
The trail then briefly winds away from the falls giving you some respite from the mist cloud. Shortly after, the trail cuts back towards the falls via a very narrow path built into the granite cliff face. Thankfully, there is a handrail along this stretch!
The trail breaks out above Vernal Fall, so you have to hike a short distance down to the top of the cascade. Here, you can literally stand within metres of the 96.6 metres (317 feet) falls, enjoying the majestic vistas of the valley below.
Top of Vernal Fall to Top of Nevada Fall
Once you have had your fix of Vernal Fall, head upstream sticking close to the fence/river bank on your left.
For approximately 150 metres the trail runs parallel to the wide section of the Merced River known as Emerald Pool. Then, the path cuts to the right and begins to climb.
The Mist Trail becomes very rocky at this point but the path remains easy to follow nonetheless. Shortly, you will pass a route leading off to the right, known as the Clark Point Cut-Off. Continue straight ahead at this point and soon after the first glimpses of Nevada Fall will come into sight above the pine trees directly ahead of you.
The trail then drops down to the river once more but this time you cross the Merced via the wooden footbridge. Now, the path starts ascending yet again, leading away from the river at first, before switching back to the right and leading you to a flat area a short distance from the river.
This is a great spot to see Nevada Fall in all its glory for the first time. Break from the trail momentarily and head towards the river to enjoy the view.
Return to the path and continue climbing the rocky trail through the pine forest, until it breaks from the trees for some dramatic and much closer views of Nevada Fall.
It is now just a case of completing one last steep section of switchbacks before finally hitting the summit!
At the intersection, you will see a sign. This is the point where the Mist Trail ends and you join the John Muir Trail. Turn right and head down towards the top of the falls where there is a footbridge just a short distance from where the Merced River tumbles 181 metres (594 feet) into the valley below.
If you want to get the best view of the Nevada Fall plunging onto the rocks below, head to the right of the waterfall where you can stand at the edge behind safety fencing and enjoy the spectacle.
The views all around you at the top of Nevada Fall are truly out of this world. In addition to the breathtaking waterfall and valley views, you also have the towering Liberty Cap, one of Yosemite’s many granite domes, that sits a short distance off to the north.
Return Via the John Muir Trail
To commence the descent, cross the footbridge at the top of the falls, heading across the flat rock until the trail enters the woods. After approximately 500 metres, you exit the woods and unbroken views across the valley to the north greet you.
It is a magnificent panorama including Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap and the more distant Half Dome. If ever you wanted a reason for completing the Mist Trail John Muir loop, this is it!
As soon as you pass this point, the trail begins its gentle descent along a predominantly rocky path. Simply follow the trail until it arrives at Clark Point.
You will know that you have arrived here as there are now two trail options plus a long rectangular information board indicating that “You are at Clark Point”.
Take the path that cuts sharply to the left and continue the descent. For the next 1.3 miles (2.1 km) the trail drops back into the valley via a multitude of switchbacks, eventually intercepting the trail adjacent to the official Mist Trail trailhead.
Turn left and retrace your steps to the starting point at the John Muir trailhead at Happy Isles. The Mist Trail and John Muir Trail loop is complete!
From the moment I stepped out of the car and looked around, I knew that we were going to be in for a real treat!
This hike is certainly not all about the destination though. Within minutes of the start I was mesmerised by the towering granite cliffs, followed by the two magnificent waterfalls.
If that wasn’t enough, the wonderful panorama of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap and Half Dome as you descend via the John Muir Trail is hard to beat.
I finished this hike feeling a genuine sense of satisfaction and wondered how any day hike could really top this one. To date, it certainly heads my list!
There is really little surprise that the Mist Trail is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes. For this reason, if you want to enjoy the wonders of this natural setting without the crowds, you had better arrive early.
Finally, if you want to see the waterfalls in full flow, plan your visit between April and June when the falls are at their thundering best.
- Remain on the trail at all times - venturing off the trail to take great photos if simply not worth the risk.
- Keep away from the river - swimming or paddling may seem appealing, especially in hot weather, but the current can be deceptively strong. This has led to numerous deaths!
- Signs and railings are in place for your safety - observe the signs and never cross railings.
- Carry a flashlight - you never know what might happen on a hike and you could find yourself hiking back in the dark.
- Carry a first aid kit - slips and trips leading to sprained ankles, cuts and bruises are commonplace. I should know as I fell on the way down the John Muir Trail cutting my hand and leg.
- Bring plenty of snacks and water - on a demanding hike, it is important to keep your energy levels up so carry sufficient energy snacks and the right quantity of water.
- Bring a phone - fully charged of course plus a charging block.
Tips and hints
- Arrive very early to avoid the crowds and to find a parking space
If you park in the eastern section of Yosemite Valley, the East Valley shuttle will be the best service for you. This route covers Yosemite Village, Curry Village, Pines campgrounds, as well as the trailheads in the eastern Yosemite Valley (including the Mist Trail). Buses operate one way only, every 8 to 12 minutes from 07:00 to 22:00.
If you park further west in the Yosemite Valley, the Valleywide shuttle will be your choice. This route caters for all stops in Yosemite Valley, including lodges, food service, campgrounds, and trailheads. Buses operate every 12 to 22 minutes from 07:00 to 22:00.
For the Mist Trail hike, you will need to get off at shuttle stop 16 (both services stop here). Then, head approximately 200 metres east across the Merced River to the John Muir Trailhead.
For further information relating to getting about, visit the Yosemite Valley Shuttle System page.
Getting thereIf you manage to grab a parking spot in the Yosemite Valley trailhead car park, you will have to walk approximately 0.5 miles (0.8 km) east along Happy Isles Loop Road to reach the John Muir trailhead (start of this hike). This is an extra 1 mile (1.6 km) that you will have to add to the overall hike length.
The nearest car park to the Mist Trail is the Yosemite Valley trailhead parking area. However, if this is full, any of the car parks in the eastern Yosemite Valley will be fine as you can jump on one of the free shuttle buses that will drop you close to the trailhead.
Mist Trail parking, especially close to the trailhead, is always in high demand. Typically, the Yosemite Valley trailhead car park is closed in the peak season after the early morning. So, arrive early!
Book recommendations for this region:
- Hiking shoes/boots
- Waterproof jacket - you will get wet on the Mist Trail
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