Why take a hike on the most popular hiking trail in Yosemite? Climbing along the Merced River to see roaring waterfalls, especially in the spring, and one of Yosemite’s most scenic trails are the reasons that you might want to consider this must do hike. When the Dogwoods are blooming, Curry Village has a magnificent display you don’t want to miss.
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 9.29 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Range: 3,970′ – 6,125′
Date: April 26, 2013
Highlights: Seeing Vernal and Nevada Falls when the snow fed Merced River is flowing at its maximum plus the treat of Dogwood blooms in Curry Village.
We parked at Curry Village, walked past this pretty little creek, continued up to the Happy Isles Bridge, crossed the bridge and turned right, heading up the path.
There is more than one way to hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls, but we chose to do a loop, hiking up the John Muir Trail to Nevada Fall, then hiking down to Vernal Fall, and down the Mist Trail.
When we came to the fork in the trail, it was clearly signed and we headed up the John Muir Trail. Some people may find it more difficult to go down the wet and slippery Mist Trail steps rather than up, but I like going down the Mist Trail in the afternoon when the water feels good in the warmer weather.
Below is what the junction of the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail looks like as you are hiking up. We go to the right for the John Muir Trail.
The Mist Trail was clearly signed on this trip. Although the Mist Trail is shorter, it is steep, heading up a steep granite stairway of over 600 steps. You should be prepared for slippery footing and a huge amount of waterfall spray in spring and early summer. Also note that the Mist Trail is closed during the winter due to rock falls and ice.
We headed up the John Muir Trail, wchich was also clearly signed on this trip. In the summer, you will be sharing this trail with horse and pack mules..
We still had some small patches of snow on the John Muir Trail.
We came across a patch of several Arnica Plants, showing off their big yellow flowers to us.
As we got closer to Nevada Fall, we got our first clear glimpses of the waterfall and the amount of water that was coming out of it.
We continued on the John Muir Trail, through a stretch where water streamed off of the rock wall and pooled on the trail.
Pretty reflections revealed themselves in the water on the trail.
When we reached the top of Nevada Fall, there were signs warning of the dangers of this area. Although a spectacular place to look out off of the bridge and see the power of the falls, people often ignore the warnings and are swept to their deaths in the cold, fast moving water.
Wow! What an awesome view off of the bridge at that tremendous amount of water going over Nevada Fall!
Check out this short video that I took:
Here is a panaramic view above the falls, looking at just where all of that water is coming from before it takes a 594 foot plunge. The waterfall free-falls for roughly the first third of its length to a steep slick-rock slope, which creates a whitewater appearance in the falls and produces a great deal of mist which covers a wide radius, which led to its current name (Nevada is an old Spanish word meaning “snowy”).
From Wikipedia, “The Indian name was Yo-wy-we, signifying the twist or squirm of the falling water. Lafayette Bunnell suggested the name “Nevada” for the waterfall. He wrote, “The Nevada Fall was so called because it was the nearest to the Sierra Nevada, and because the name was sufficiently indicative of a wintry companion for our spring (Vernal Fall)… The white, foaming water, as it dashed down Yo-wy-we from the snowy mountains, represented to my mind a vast avalanche of snow”
The view from the top of Nevada Fall is one of a kind. Everyone was taking in the view, even Mr. Squirrel.
After we enjoyed our lunch at Nevada Fall, we headed down toward Vernal Fall where you get some awesome views of Nevada Fall.
Do you see the people at the top of Nevada Fall, close to the edge? I don’t think people realize how one wrong step can be so deadly.
My hiking partner for the day, Gail Gilbert, took this picture of my on the trail below Nevada Fall.
When we made it to Vernal Fall, there were people taking pictures, and people taking pictures of people taking pictures. . .
Backpacker Magazine rates the Mist Trail as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes. Fatigue, altitude sickness, and dehydration contribute to the danger, but many times hikers ignore warnings of staying away from the swift flowing water of the Merced River, deliberately climbing over barriers to get a better view, slipping and falling into the River.
There are so many signs warning people of the dangers of the Merced River in this area but for some reason someone will ignore them. When in any doubt, stay out of the water and use good common sense. Fast moving water can be a killer and is the cause of most deaths in the park. I cannot emphasize enough that you should follow what the signs say and keep close control of your little ones.
Vernal Fall has a drop of 317 feet. From John Hittell’s 1868 “Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties”, it was named Vernal because the water near the top is very green and to distinquish it from another fall farther up that was very white.
We spoke with the parents of this 22 month year old, who had a tight rein on her. They carried her up in a backpack made for small children. It is wonderful to have your children along with you, but keep a close eye on them. The terrain is beautiful, but can be very dangerous if not treated with the utmost respect.
From Vernal Fall, we could see the Mist Trail below. We headed down the trail into the mist.
Looking back up toward Vernal Fall, we could admire the power of all of that water.
A closeup of Vernal Fall revealed a unique pattern in the water falling along the right hand side.
And a rainbow.
We continued down the Mist Trail. The steps were high, wet and slippery. Careful placement of feet is a must on slick steep granite steps, especially going down.
Lack of concentration or fooling around in some of the tricky sections of the trail could result in serious injury or even death. I was surprised at the amount of people on the trail for a mid-week April day and there was a wide variety of attire.
Some hikers donned garbage bags to try and keep dry in the heavy mist. Some wore raingear and some, like me, just enjoyed the wet drenching that cooled them off. Some hikers used trekking poles to assist them. Since the rocks were so steep and slippery, hikers took breaks along wide spots on the trail.
Despite the dangerous slick rocks, I spotted this toddler riding the shoulders of an adult and shuddered to think what would have happed should a slip occur.
Farther down the trail, we caught a glimpse of Illilouette Fall and the clouds made for some nice pictures.
What a great surprise to see Scarlet Penstemon along the well traveled trail. I had to look this one up in the book, but knew it was some sort of Penstemon.
We also saw this cute little yellow flower along the trail. I’m not positive but I think it might be Floriferous Monkeyflower.
The real reason that we parked at Curry Village is because we wanted to check the Dogwoods out after our hike. It is hard to beat these beautiful white flowers and when they are at their peak, there is an explosion of white Dogwoods in Curry Village.
The brand new Dogwood leaves are also gorgeous.
Dogwood and Redbud.
Half Dome and Dogwoods
And more Dogwood blooms!
I think the best time to do this hike is in the spring when the waterfalls are at their peak. In the spring you have the Dogwoods blooming, but there are always nice surprises along the trail no matter which time of the year you do it.
Bunnell, Lafayette H. (1892) Discovery of the Yosemite. Chapter 13, p. 205
Hittell, John S. (1868) Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties