After an epic first day in Yosemite (read all about it here!), we were ready to finally get out for a major hike. I was honestly worried about my ability to do a hard hike at elevation, but when chatting with some people in line for the showers I learned that the hike up to Vernal and Nevada Falls was one of the best hikes in the park and I couldn’t pass it up. I got the advice to hike up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail, making it an 8 mile hike. With the addition of a 2 mile walk each way from our tent cabin to the trailhead, it was going to be a 12 mile hike.
It was really nice getting to walk right out our door and off to our hiking trail. The trailhead starts in Happy Isles after crossing a large bridge. It’s a crowded trailhead with people doing lots of different levels of hiking. Some were just walking up the paved trail to the bottom of Vernal Falls, others were doing both the waterfalls like us, and some were going all the way up to Half Dome! We didn’t have a permit for Half Dome, mostly because my husband was uncomfortable with the idea of the cables, so when we planned our trip we had decided to do the beginning part of the trail instead.
As soon as we started walking up towards Vernal Falls I felt incredibly hot and dizzy. It was tough to breathe at 4,000 feet, and there were so many people around that it was hard to find a spot to rest in the shade. I was seriously questioning my ability to make it to the top at almost 6,000 feet in 90 degree weather. But once we got to the river and saw Vernal Falls, I knew I had to keep going. The trail was also a lot cooler with the wind and mist from the falls!
As soon as we left the lower bridge, the crowd thinned out a tiny bit although it was still much more crowded than any trail I’ve ever been on in Alaska. This part of the trail really lived up to its name – the mist from Vernal Falls literally poured down on us as we climbed up the side of the waterfall on rock stairs. I had carefully chosen my outfit for the day by picking my most moisture wicking shorts and tank, and Andrew and I had put our phones in ziplock bags. I was so glad I’d prepared for the super wet conditions! I’ve never walked thorough water while it was also sunny and I was really excited to see so many rainbows over the trail at every turn.
The trail up to the top of Vernal Falls was steep and sunny, but the distraction of walking through the mist from the waterfall made it fly by. I only had to take breaks because I couldn’t stop taking pictures as I walked through the clouds of mist. When we finally reached the top we were soaked but smiling!
At the very top of the falls there was a lot of space for people to relax and eat lunch. We ate our sandwiches while staring down at the bottom of the falls and all the rainbows arching over the people on the trail. I was feeling much better about being at elevation, so we continued on to Nevada Falls.
Most people turned around at the top of Vernal Falls so we had some extra peace and quiet to enjoy this part of the hike. The trail between the waterfalls bordered the Merced River and we got to watch the water calmly wind back towards the falls as we hiked farther up. Soon we reached another bridge that had views of Nevada Falls, which was a much higher waterfall than the one we had just climbed.
This is when the trail got tough. Anyone who can deal with lots of steep rock steps switchbacking up the mountain will be fine, but it was just very hot and hard for me to breathe. Everyone was powering up the sunny steps and stopping to gasp for air whenever we found the small shaded patches. I saw people of varying levels of ability up there, from a 3 year old kid all the way up to elderly people using trekking poles. Everyone took it at their own pace and I was inspired to see people pushing themselves to reach the top. When we finally made it up there I couldn’t stop freaking out about the views!
The view over the falls was incredible – the water was moving so fast and had such a long way to drop. Once we crossed the Merced River there was lots of open cliff areas where we stopped to stare off into the valley for a while. The views were awesome.
We took the John Muir Trail back down to the bottom of Vernal Falls, which was a slightly longer but less steep route. It also had awesome views of Nevada Falls and Half Dome on the way back down. I was constantly stopping to take in the views before we dipped back down below the trees.
When we reached the bottom, it was a shock to join up with so many tourists again by the bottom of Vernal Falls. We ended our hike as quickly as possible, and were so excited to take a well earned shower and eat some burgers and fries before heading to bed early!
Total miles walked on day two: 15
Have you ever walked through a waterfall? What’s the most crowded hike you’ve ever done?