The Mist Trail – Part Two
Be sure to read Part One first.
Shortly after I left Vernal Fall I realized why the path to Nevada Fall is far less traveled. The trail became rocky, rugged, uneven, jagged, and steep… all at once. It was much less defined than the Mist Trail and harder to follow. I traversed over and between boulders of varying size. Oftentimes the trail ascended rocks positioned like another staircase along the side of the mountain. However, unlike on the Mist Trail, the rocks were naturally there, so it was sometimes hard to decipher what was part of the trail and what wasn’t.
I actually lost the trail a couple of times as a result. One of those times I came across a couple of hikers walking down the path toward me who quickly helped me relocate the trail. That was just another example of the helpfulness of hikers off the beaten path.
It wasn’t long before I heard the deafening growl of Nevada Fall. I saw a hiker emerge from an area off trail with a camera in hand. I asked if there was a good view over there. He recommended I check it out, so I walked between some trees to see for myself.
The forest opened up to an astounding vista looking up at the impressive waterfall. The fact that it was my first sight of the powerful cataract made it even better. Nevada Fall, despite being considerably thinner than Vernal Fall, packed just as much punch, because it was almost twice as tall as its predecessor at 594 feet. It filled the surrounding sky with mist, which I realized while trying to take pictures.
Vernal Fall basically folded over the edge of a cliff and dropped straight down. Nevada Fall, on the other hand, shot out over a cliff, propelling itself far in front of the granite wall from which it came. The water was a snowy white, appearing like an avalanche of snow launching itself off a mountain. The water almost perfectly mimicked the color and look of the puffy clouds above. The white water and clouds both stood out amid a perfect sapphire blue sky.
I eventually left the incredible view and returned to the trail. The final stretch required a steep climb up a long line of giant boulders. It was an especially taxing end to a difficult hike and I still had to make it back down to the trailhead. I was rather exhausted and really looking forward to eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and resting for a good while. I continued trudging away and finally made it to the top.
Similar to Vernal Fall, there was a large expanse of granite atop Nevada Fall. It was mostly flat and open. Nine or ten others were up there taking a break. A small bridge spanned the Merced River a short distance before it reached the cliff. Crossing over the bridge provides the option of descending along the John Muir Trail, for a change of scenery, down to the trailhead at Happy Isles.
I cherished my experience next to Nevada Fall. It felt great to be nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor, looking out over the pristine wilderness. I stood next to the fall, admiring the source of such raw power supplied purely by nature. It was loud and entrancing. I stood there in a daze for a few minutes, watching it launch far off the edge next to me.
As I sat down on a rock and took out my sandwich I began to wonder about Joe’s whereabouts. I wasn’t sure if we had made definite plans to ascend all the way to Nevada Fall, although I thought it was likely. Also, I was still unsure whether or not he went up the Mist Trail, like me, or if he took the John Muir Trail. At that point I was hoping he had taken the John Muir Trail, because that meant we would have to cross paths. I kept going back to the thought of Joe carrying his guitar up the rocks of the Mist Trail. I had my doubts that he would want to make that trek with his guitar on his back, even if it was his bad one.
I had been trying to hike at a pretty fast pace since I had no idea where Joe was. I would feel bad if he turned back at Vernal Fall and was waiting at the trailhead. That was unlikely. He wouldn’t just sit there and wait; if he did turn back he would sit and play his guitar or walk somewhere else and farther explore Yosemite Valley. I was confident that wherever he might have been he was fine. I didn’t let it occupy my thoughts for too long. I did, however, make quick work of my peanut butter and jelly and started down the John Muir Trail.
According to the trail marker the Muir Trail was longer than the Mist Trail option, but I knew I should be able to stay dry and warm. Likewise, I knew it would descend along countless switchbacks, meaning it wouldn’t be as steep as the Mist Trail with its hundreds of stone steps.
Thanks to the combination of the spring runoff and the recent storm there were several small waterfalls adjacent to the beastly Nevada Fall. They were very thin cascades that clung to the mountain’s sheer granite face. Sure, they may have been a handful of small waterfalls, but they could be dangerous obstacles to overcome. The reason being, the trail ran parallel to the cliff, only a few feet from the rim. The seasonal cascades flowed directly across the path that I had to traverse. Thankfully there were rocks strewn about the trail, making it fairly easy to steer clear of the water. However, I had to be very careful, because if I missed a rock, or slipped and fell, the current would have carried me right over the edge and down a few hundred feet.
There were a few spots where I had to pass under falling water. That mostly equated to a small amount of dripping water, not actual streams. It was enough to get me wet, but it didn’t come close to the worst stretches along the Mist Trail.
Once I escaped the water for good I found myself on pace with another man about my age. In fact, I think he was the same guy who directed me to the amazing view of Nevada Fall earlier on the trail. I’m pretty sure he was also up at the clearing beside Nevada Fall when I was. We both stopped high on the trail at the same point to turn back toward Nevada Fall. There was a nice view of the waterfall pouring down into the valley. Liberty Cap, a tall granite dome, towered over the fall. We talked about the nice view and the hike up the Mist Trail, and then continued down the trail.
Considering we were both hiking alone and at about the same speed we decided to carry on together. We chatted about our cameras and Yosemite as we started down some switchbacks. He told me he had just graduated from Michigan University and was on vacation as a graduation present.
He said he and his family had flown to California and rented a motor home. He decided to take a break from his family and hike the Mist Trail to Nevada Fall by himself. He was supposed to meet his father at the trailhead in about thirty minutes, but we still had an hour or two of hiking left. I was likewise in a hurry, because I feared Joe was waiting at the trailhead. So we hustled down the winding switchbacks together.
My new hiking companion told me that he was in the marching band while at Michigan. We discussed how awesome it was to be on the field in front of over 100,000 screaming fans. I told him about my trip with Joe and how we had stopped at Notre Dame on the way out west. We talked more about our cameras and the trails we had hiked in the park. Hiking with a stranger for a few miles was a great experience.
About an hour into walking down the John Muir Trail together we introduced ourselves. His name was Mike. I thought it was funny that we didn’t even think about it until then, we just talked as we went.
The Muir Trail was a mile or two longer than the Mist Trail down from Nevada Fall, but the descent was more gradual and significantly easier on the knees. Due to the many switchbacks that took us through the forest Mike and I were able to hike at a considerable speed while conversing.
Mike and I parted ways at the Vernal Fall Bridge. He stopped to use the restroom there, while I elected to continue. For one thing, I was nearly out of water. The water fountain still wasn’t working and the water from the restroom faucet is unsafe to drink. I senselessly only brought a full water bottle instead of filling the water bladder inside my backpack. That was a bad choice.
I quickly passed over the wooden bridge and soon rejoined the paved pathway. Then I followed the trail beside the Merced River until it brought me back to the trailhead at Happy Isles.
The hike was part of my second of seven hiking trips out west. I have hiked many more demanding hikes since, but at the time it was second only to the Plateau Point hike in the Grand Canyon in difficulty. Thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as hard as Plateau Point. Despite the moderate level of difficulty, the trail was very enjoyable and scenic.
I walked over to the shuttle stop near the trailhead where there were several benches. A number of people were there, waiting for the next shuttle bus. Joe, however, was not one of them. I went to the restroom nearby and filled up on potable water, which I promptly chugged. I repeated that a couple of times, downing a huge amount of water in a few minutes time.
I took off my backpack and collapsed onto a bench, fully exhausted. I waited there for a half hour, hoping Joe would turn up. I had no such luck. So I eventually took the shuttle back to the General Store near my car.
Joe wasn’t in the store or waiting by my car. I was officially stumped. I half expected to spot him strumming away on his guitar on the steps of a building or a large rock somewhere. That was not the case though. I asked some of the workers in the General Store if they had seen any guitar-toting patrons, but they had not.
So, I decided to go for a little drive through the valley to see if I could find him anywhere. If not, I would still be surrounded by amazing scenery. I stopped at a meadow below Yosemite Fall, returned to Happy Isles, and went to another meadow beneath the shadow of Half Dome.
It was after 6:00 p.m. and nearly five hours since I had seen my friend. I still wasn’t genuinely concerned, though. I figured he was probably off somewhere, fully content, just walking around or playing his guitar.
I stopped a few more times to photograph the immaculate valley. I returned to a meadow where I had a good view of Half Dome for the sunset. Far out in the meadow there was a black bear. A handful of people were watching it through binoculars. It was hard to really decipher what it was through my camera. I kept an eye on it, but it remained in the tall grass as twilight fell.
It was almost 8:00 p.m. when I got a call on my cell phone from an unknown number. As I expected and hoped, it was Joe. He called from a payphone outside the General Store. I told him I’d see him in five minutes.
We met at the steps behind the store. Then we briefly discussed what we had been up to over the last several hours, while we grabbed some cardboard boxes to fuel our campfire later.
It turned out Joe spent a lot of time near the Vernal Fall Bridge, exploring downstream along the vibrant Merced River. He then ascended the Mist Trail, like I had; having his rustic guitar brave the vicious spray from the fall. Then he followed the same loop as me, heading over Nevada Fall and down the John Muir Trail. He said he then completed the short hike to Mirror
Lake. I was jealous then, because I didn’t make it there. He said he played guitar beside the small lake for a long time before turning back. He stated that while the solitude was nice, the lake itself was very small and despite its name it didn’t reflect the scenery well.
The whole hiking mess with Joe taught me a valuable lesson. Even though we planned on hiking the whole trail together we should have had a plan in place in case we got separated. We should have at least entertained the possibility that we might remain apart once I left him by the river. We obviously did not do that, but if we had, we could have met up somewhere farther up the trail and carried on together.
I think we should have said that if we didn’t naturally run into each other sooner, whoever got to the top of Vernal Fall first would wait for the other. Going a step farther, I think that on the off chance that we stayed separated thru the end of the hike we should have had a contingency plan. My simple suggestion would have been to set up a meeting point for after the trail was completed. Then we could stop there repeatedly until we are there at the same time. Perhaps the trailhead or in front of the General Store would work. Then we would need to plan how often to meet, maybe every hour or half hour. So, in the situation that actually unfolded I could have returned to the General Store each hour, on the hour, until I met up with Joe. The time in between could be spent on short hikes or simply exploring the valley. Ideally, it would have worked perfectly.
After collecting an ample amount of boxes from a large bin we headed back to the campground. It was about a 25-mile drive along curvaceous roads with darkness increasingly enveloping us.
It was pitch black by the time we reached our campsite. We quickly started our final campfire of the trip. Once it was burning bright we tossed a handful of Italian sausages on the grill for a late dinner.
The mood was mixed beside the fire. We felt triumphant after completing our difficult and incredibly scenic hike. At the same time we were solemn. It was our last night grilling delicious food and sitting around a campfire with good beers. One of the best experiences of the trip had been coming back to a campfire after a long day of hiking. It provided a tranquil and relaxing night after an active and exhausting day. We both knew we would miss that dearly.