The Mist Trail – Part One
Joe and I drove from our campsite at Hodgdon Meadow, south then east, to Yosemite Valley. After parking in a large lot near the Yosemite General Store we hopped on the free shuttle bus. We planned on taking the shuttle to the Happy Isles Trailhead, which we didn’t think had any parking nearby. However, I later realized there is a parking lot about a half-mile from the trailhead.
Since we enjoyed an easy and relaxing day in the park the previous day, we planned a more arduous day of hiking. We elected to embark on the popular Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. Then from the top of Vernal Fall we could turn back or more likely carry on up to Nevada Fall, tacking on about four miles altogether. It would potentially make for a seven mile hike with an elevation gain of almost 2,000 feet. Then, if our legs were still feeling up to it, we would make the short two-mile hike north from Happy Isles to Mirror Lake, a small lake that reflects Half Dome high above it.
It took us much longer to get to the trailhead than expected, because the shuttle took the most roundabout route possible. Along the way, Joe and I talked with three girls in the back of the small bus. They told us that they had just begun summer jobs at the park. They were in college, and were lucky enough to be able to spend their summers in Yosemite while making a little money. We were a few years older than them, and had both graduated college by then, but I was jealous nonetheless. I wished I would have thought about doing something like that a couple years earlier. I doubt it pays well, but it sounds rather appetizing to work some remedial service job and then go hiking after work every day. It would be ideal to work over the summer, between semesters at college, just like those girls were doing.
Eventually, we got dropped off at Happy Isles, along with most of the others aboard the shuttle. Happy Isles is home to a new Nature Center as well as the trailhead for a few hikes. The John Muir Trail, Mist Trail, Mirror Lake Trail, Cloud’s Rest Trail and more begin there. It was just after noon when we finally began our hike. I strapped on my new backpack and Joe grabbed his newly-fashioned guitar case/backpack and off we went.
While the Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall hikes are popular short hikes, they cannot compete with the famous Mist Trail. It is the quintessential Yosemite hike. The trail showcases two incredible waterfalls. Both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall soak hikers with mist, especially in the spring. Joe and I were in for a real treat, because not only were we there in the spring, but the valley was only two days removed from a flood. Those factors would combine to cause the waterfalls to flow with uncontrollable rage. In addition to the glorious waterfalls, numerous granite domes and mountains tower above the trail, lush green forest fills the landscape, and the thunderous Merced River flows beside the trail. Not only is this hike the pride and joy of Yosemite, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better hike in the entire National Park System. It’s certainly on my short list of spectacular hikes.
The start of the hike was very crowded due to the number of people that emptied off the shuttle at the same time. Before long we were able to separate ourselves from the pack, however, and once again be more in tune with our natural surroundings than that of the bustling civilization we hoped to leave behind. It felt good to get away from the noisy and crowded shuttle. The trail remained busy, because it is a popular one, but the crowd was more spread out away from the trailhead.
The trail began on level ground that ran parallel to the Merced River. The river was considerably thinner and gushed with far more force than where it flowed between meadows on the valley floor.
After a short time the path sloped upward at a gradual rate. We continued on at a fast pace with little effort. We passed more hikers and admired the surrounding scenery. The narrow river beside us thrashed its way around large rocks, firing mist into the air.
Over time the rate of the incline grew. It became more noticeable, but still not too demanding. The path remained paved at that point. We stopped for a water break. We found ourselves in a very peaceful location by the river and decided to enjoy it for a bit. Joe took out his guitar and I pulled a bag of potato chips out of my pack. We sat down on a pair of large rocks across from the river to relax. Joe strummed away while I snacked on my chips. The occasional hiker stopped to listen for a second or ask Joe if he intended on bringing his guitar all the way up the Mist Trail. A few people warned him that the guitar would likely get soaked up near Vernal Fall. Joe told them it was no big deal as it was his traveling guitar and it could handle a little adversity.
After about fifteen minutes I put the bag of potato chips back in my backpack. Joe could tell I was ready to continue; after all we were barely a half-mile into the hike. He said he wanted to stay and play his guitar for a little longer and that he would catch up to me in a little while. So I thought nothing of it, figuring that with me making frequent stops to take pictures he would catch up to me in under an hour. We had no idea that would be the last time we would see each other for almost seven hours.
I was fine with moving on by myself. At least a part of me is more comfortable alone on the trail. In those instances I can go at my own speed and stop whenever I want for photo opportunities. I would still prefer to hike with a friend more often than not though, especially on longer hikes or those in bear country.
It wasn’t much later when I arrived at the Vernal Fall Bridge. The long wooden bridge spanned the Merced River. Water rushed beneath it with unrivaled fury, darting between boulders and crashing up toward the bridge. Several people stood on the bridge, firing off their cameras in succession at their first glimpse of Vernal Fall. The bridge was just eight tenths of a mile from the trailhead at Happy Isles. I had ascended 400 feet on the trail so far, meaning there was about 600 feet of climbing left to get to Vernal Fall.
I took a few pictures of the waterfall from the bridge, like everyone else. The view wasn’t that great, though. The fall was mostly blocked from view by large pines that lined the river so only a slice of the right side of Vernal Fall could be seen.
I remained on the bridge for a minute watching the river beneath me and the waterfall in the distance. Then I continued to the opposite side of the river, which was bustling with activity. There was a large open area shrouded by tall trees. It was a great spot to rest for those continuing up the trail as well as a turnaround point for a lot of people. There were restrooms about 100 feet from the bridge and a water fountain. Since it was only mid-May the water fountain was not working yet, but there was someone working on it while I was there. A large group of car-sized boulders were adjacent to the bridge. Several kids were climbing on the large rocks and others sat on the smaller ones.
The place was a zoo, far too crowded for my liking. And since it hadn’t been long at all since I stopped with Joe, I continued up the trail after snapping a few pictures of the fall and the river. A few minutes later I reached a trail junction. I could proceed straight, along the famed John Muir Trail that stretches out for over 200 miles, or turn left onto the Mist Trail. While both trails connect a short distance above Nevada Fall a few miles later, the John Muir Trail skirts the waterfall, following many switchbacks up the side of a mountain. The Mist Trail, on the other hand, follows the Merced River before climbing straight up the side of Vernal Fall and ending atop Nevada Fall.
I hooked left and headed up the Mist Trail as it rapidly steepened. I weaved in and out of view of Vernal Fall. After a short time, I noticed a small peninsula made up of large rocks jutting out into the river. I stopped there and cautiously took a few steps out onto the rocks to see what the view upriver looked like.
The spot ended up being an amazingly scenic vista. Vernal Fall was directly in front of me, probably about a quarter of a mile away. It was by far the widest of the waterfalls I had seen in Yosemite. The huge fall folded over a 300 foot high cliff, only to come crashing down upon a cluster of colossal boulders. The mighty explosion of water on rock filled the air with a thick blanket of mist. Even where I stood, a good distance downriver, I was under attack of the spray. I had to be very careful with my cameras. Nonetheless, that was where I took my best photos of Vernal Fall.
After I reemerged onto the trail I realized it had been quite a while since I had left Joe. I figured he would have caught up to me by then. I thought back to the fork in the trail, and feared he might have taken the John Muir Trail up. I was always the one who did the research and planning, oftentimes Joe didn’t know what was coming next. He liked the surprise of not knowing what to expect and I liked planning it out, so our arrangement generally worked out quite well. However, that’s only the case if we stick together or at least if the trail doesn’t split. Considering the way we hiked together, I figured he might not have known we intended on following the Mist Trail up. I hadn’t realized there would be another trail, so I figured we would have no problem staying on the same page.
I decided to look for him, since we might have gone in opposite directions. I quickly headed back the way I came, before stopping at the trail intersection. I headed up the John Muir Trail until I saw a few hikers coming down the trail. I asked if they had seen a man, about my age, with a guitar case on his back. They hadn’t seen him. I figured it would be pretty hard for someone to miss a person with a guitar on his back. I asked a couple others before heading back down the trail.
Figuring Joe could still be down near the bridge, I returned there. I took a seat on one of the large rocks and reopened my bag of chips. I relaxed there while keeping an eye out for Joe. I continued to ask people going up and down the trail if they had seen a guy with a guitar. Once I finished my snack I still had no idea where he could be. I stuck around for about a half hour before giving up. If he had gone the same way as me I would have run into him by then, and if he took the John Muir Trail we would eventually cross paths high up on the mountain. So, I deemed it time to get back on the Mist Trail.
I felt like I had fallen behind schedule and was likely far behind Joe, so I increased my pace. It didn’t take long to make it back to the spot beside the river. Even so, I probably lost close to an hour due to all my backtracking.
As I got closer to Vernal Fall the path grew steeper. The guttural roar of the waterfall could be heard from afar. I eventually emerged from the forest to where the trail culminates at a massive staircase, built of rocks and small boulders. Several hundred granite steps, steep and slippery, stood between me and the brink of Vernal Fall. The large stairs hugged the mountainside en route to the top of the stunning waterfall.
I gazed up at the intricate rocky pathway and saw that nearly everyone heading up had some sort of rain gear, whether it was a poncho, raincoat, or even an umbrella. I, on the other hand, was in shorts and a tee-shirt, with no rain gear whatsoever. I figured it was called the Mist Trail for a reason. However, I didn’t think I would need a poncho, I simply expected to get a little wet and refreshed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I took a closer look at the people hiking up and down the trail and saw that almost all were completely soaked. I had a long-sleeved shirt in my pack, but figured that wouldn’t help much. I stopped and inspected my backpack to insure that my cameras were safely sealed in their camera bags and under my shirt. Then I started the fateful climb toward the fall.
First off, I’d like to reiterate how I hiked this trail just a couple of days after Yosemite Valley was closed due to flooding. Consider that with the fact that waterfalls flow at a much higher volume in Spring and it is obvious that the term “Mist Trail” did not apply.
Within minutes, I felt the relentless spray of the fall pouring down on me. Next were the puddles on almost every granite step I encountered. With the mist, which was actually more like a downpour, came the cold. It was a warm, sunny day with a welcoming blue sky. Yet, the air below the waterfall was thick with moisture and cool as a result. My shorts and shirt quickly became completely drenched and stuck to my skin, making me colder still.
Since I was becoming increasingly cold and wet I quickened my pace up the steps. Most of them were covered with water and slippery, requiring great caution. It was hard to perfect a balance between being careful and climbing fast. Thankfully my hiking sneakers were very good at gripping surfaces, even those that were wet and slippery.
The problem was that most of the people in front of me slowed down to a crawl. The height of many of the steps was much higher than early on, causing people to stretch their legs considerably. Shorter people and children actually used their hands to help climb up them. Also working against hikers at the giant steps portion of the staircase was the fact that most people had naturally slowed down from the distance and elevation climbed already. The combination of those factors left me shivering behind people inching their way up to the top of the grand rock staircase. Not to say I wasn’t tired, but I was driven by the will to get out from under the unyielding spray of Vernal Fall to get warm.
It took a while, but I was ultimately able to work my way around most of the crowd on my way up the steep, slick stairs. It took some effort, but I suddenly emerged from the steps and entered a small forested area. I wasn’t to the top of the waterfall yet, but I had successfully made it to the top of the granite stairs and out of the mist.
I walked through the woods to a space between some trees for an up close view of the fall. There was a brilliant rainbow stretching across the bottom of the waterfall. Vernal Fall is famous for its rainbows, and rightfully so. The waterfall faces south and has an abundance of mist, which happen to be the two primary factors for seeing rainbows on waterfalls.
After admiring the rainbow I walked to an opening in the trees where I could get some sun to warm up and dry off. I knelt on the ground and opened my backpack to check the condition of my cameras. All seemed to be in working order so I took a few pictures of the rainbow and moved on.
I carried on through the forest, a short distance to the right of the waterfall. The sound of its thunderous roar muffled all other sounds in the forest. The mist was still tangible in the woods, but nothing compared to how it was on the granite staircase.
I soon made my way to a large open area adjacent to Vernal Fall. An uneven granite surface led along the cliff edge to the waterfall itself. I slowly walked over to the brink of the beastly waterfall, mesmerized by the source of such earsplitting fury.
Standing directly next to the fall, I surveyed its giant plunge off the cliff. I looked back to where the river surged toward me with great fervor, whitewater splashing in every direction. It rushed beside me, a few feet lower, through a granite channel carved over thousands of years by the flowing water. Then I looked down over the edge at the colossal boulders that greeted the violent shower from above. In the distance, past the cloud of mist, the Merced River snaked its way around curves, bordered on both sides by soaring evergreens.
I gazed out over the verdant valley surrounding the Merced. To the left of the river was the granite staircase. The single-file line of hikers, decked out in their multicolored raingear, looked miniscule a few hundred feet below me. They resembled an army of ants, methodically marching up the steps.
There were a couple dozen others atop the waterfall with me. The clearing was big enough for people to spread out. Most were resting or eating a lunch they packed. I opted to save my peanut butter and jelly for later. I relaxed for a little while and dried off in the sun.
A short distance behind the brink of the falls was a portion of the Merced River called the Emerald Pool. A large piece of granite dips into the water like a waterslide. It used to be a popular swimming hole for hikers on hot days. However, the area is now banned from hikers, due to how dangerous it can be. There is a strong undercurrent that flows toward Vernal Fall. In fact, over the years many people have been swept away by the river and over the waterfall to their death. Most of the deaths that have occurred on the trail have happened because people have slipped, fallen, or willfully gone into the river only to be taken for a ride over a 300 foot tall waterfall.
Once I warmed up and dried off I got back on the trail. First I checked the nearby trail signs. Posts marked trails and distances in different directions. After examining the signs I decided to continue up to Nevada Fall as planned.
I quickly realized that I was virtually alone in my choice to carry on. The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall is regarded as the most popular hike in all of Yosemite, but it was as if once I got 100 feet past Vernal Fall, all foot traffic had completely fallen off. Many people turn back to the trailhead at Vernal Fall Bridge. A considerable amount makes it up the hundreds of granite steps to the fall, but relatively speaking, very few go farther.
It was actually quite nice to escape the crowds that swarmed the trail so far. Dodging other hikers on the trail and competing for the most photogenic vistas can get frustrating after a while. Then again, I’ve also met some very friendly and courteous hikers miles from a trailhead.
To be continued…