The trail to the bridge below Vernal Fall, and then up the mist trail and beyond is considered by many to be the best short hike in Yosemite Valley. For people who want to do the Mist Trail and continue with the hike to the top of Half Dome and back in one day, it should be started by 5 a.m. For a shorter excursion, the best pictures with rainbows in the mist are taken if you start the hike at around 10 a.m., but this is also the time with the most crowds.
(And see below notes about continuing to Half Dome.)
The mist trail section can open in late March to early May and stay open to late November or mid December. “Obey trail closures. The Mist Trail is usually closed in winter due to icy conditions, as well as ice and rock falling onto the trail from above. Entering closed areas is prohibited, and visitors who do so put themselves at unnecessary risk,” is a quote from https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/a-winter-trail-run-to-half-dome-nearly-ends-in-disaster.htm
The main valley visitor center has a huge raised relief map of Yosemite geological features with trails marked on it. Below, a photo of part of this display, showing Half Dome from above and the trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls (and on towards the top of Half Dome), on the right:
See a 360 degree view from Glacier Point down to Vernal and Nevada falls, and across to Half Dome at:
Wear sturdy shoes (boots are best) with good tread on the soles. See hiking advice for a list of gear. Take the Yosemite Valley free shuttle bus to stop 16 at Happy Isles, then cross the bridge and turn right.
This shows the two ways to go to Vernal and/or Nevada Fall, (most people go up the Mist trail and down the John Muir trail and in winter only some parts of the trail may be open.
From the trailhead at Happy Isles, the initial walk on a paved path to the bridge below Vernal Fall is .8 miles. If you have any extra time, you should not start immediately from Happy Isles, but take a few minutes to walk directly up the path from the bus stop to the best nature center in the park, and maybe wander for a bit in the fen on the right hand side of that pathway. There are pictures at:Yosemite visitor centers
Then go back to the bus stop, walk across the bridge on the main road, turn right and walk through an area that is dusty from wear of feet. Ahead there is a big sign with trail distances on this section of the John Muir trail. After .8 miles you get to the bridge.
Just over the bridge are (open most of the year, opening day after winter varies, but often in early April) restrooms and a drinking fountain with purified water, but they can be closed at any time with little or no notice due to water turbidity. Plus, you should have carried more water or a filter for a longer hike. It is not safe to drink unpurified water from streams, rivers or lakes in the park. From the Yosemite Daily report of Oct. 24, 2016: “The Vernal Fall water system and comfort station will close for the season on Monday, October 24. Potable water will no longer be available beyond Happy Isles on the John Muir Trail. The composting toilets located at Emerald Pool, Nevada Fall, and Little Yosemite Valley remain open all year.”
Too many people make the mistake of ending their hike at the bridge and returning to Happy Isles. Many think they are too tired from walking, either because they went too fast or didn’t drink enough water and have a few salty snacks. Some think it is too much of an adventure to go farther, but they should at least try going part way up the Mist Trail for great closeup views of the fall.
Below, a May 22, 2005 NPS photo during the ten year flood:
A couple of hundred yards uphill past the restrooms another trail comes in from the right. It might be your return route, so stop for a few seconds and look around in the direction you are coming from and up the trail you will continue on, so this junction will look familiar on your return. After this short detour, you should continue alongside the river.
In the photo below you can see the start of the staircase shortly ahead.
When we hike the Mist Trail in its mistiest months we like to either wear better rain gear than this, or wear a minimum amount of clothes and plan to get soaked. (But we always bring warm things to put on at the top after.) When the water flow is highest in some spring months, some of the steps can be inches deep in water.
Be careful of your huge backpack (or even a large daypack) on a tight trail. If you turn around too quickly you can knock someone behind you off the trail. AND, of course, have some distance between you and the person in front of you.
Google street view near the top of the stairs: (it can take a moment to load)
At the end of the Mist Trail there are a couple of sections with railings:
At the top there is another railing to keep people from falling over the cliff where the falls drop 320 feet into the gorge you just walked up.
For a few weeks around the summer solstice there are fragrant azaleas just upriver.
If you made it this far, you should have a picnic, but the best place for one is not necessarily with the crowds at the huge flat sheet of rock at the top of the fall. Walk a bit farther upriver past the side path to the restrooms, to find the Silver Apron cascade and it’s resident ouzel:
Please don’t feed the ground squirrels, they need to fill up on natural foods to make it through the long winter. Watch out, they can get into the pack you set on the ground in seconds. Other people have fed them and they become aggressive.
This whole area is closed to wading, sliding and swimming, as every year people lose their lives in the park from overestimating the power of moving water and being swept over waterfalls, crashed into submerged boulders or drowning. Rescue teams do respond to this area if needed, but not in time to actually save people in trouble in the water.
Below a link to the story of two young men used to playing in the ocean, who thought that they could swim in the Emerald Pool and almost died (the page says: “Emerald Pool is not a swimming pool. Other swimmers have drowned after discovering the challenge of cold and current when it was too late.”).
Also see Five Silver Apron Injuries on Same Day near the end of this webpage.
Some people think you can just carefully slide along the granite above the pool and if you are careful enough, get out to the side quickly. You can’t count on that. Please stay away from the water.
After a picnic in either the sun to dry off from the Mist Trail or in the shade if you are tired of the heat, some people who want to make this a short hike will return back down the Mist Trail, which is often crowded in the afternoon. Others, who don’t want to slip on the steep downhill sections of granite steps with sandy surfaces which can be fine going uphill but potentially dangerous downhill, take an alternate route with new views.
The other route is longer in distance, but has mostly wide switchbacks that can be walked briskly if you wear shoes/boots with sufficient tread. (If you go all the way to the top of Nevada Fall, it is a half hour faster to take this John Muir Trail section down than to go back down the Mist Trail steps.) This section of trail starts in the vicinity of the Silver Apron. There are signs, but the whole area is so worn that the trail is not distinct. It goes uphill at first through mostly open sections, aren’t you glad you have a wide brimmed hat? (hiking advice)
The trail intersects a trail which goes to the left towards Nevada Fall or to the right (your route to the valley).
This uphill section is for a half mile to Clark Point with views behind you to Nevada Fall,
then there is more shade and mostly fast hiking along countless switchbacks your leg muscles will like better than downhill steps, past a horses only trail to the left, and down to the trail section above the first main Vernal bridge. Turn left here and continue downhill. If you stopped on the way up, took a few steps up the trail, turned around and looked back and around, you should not feel as though you are lost. From the bridge/restrooms/drinking fountain it is only about 15 to 20 minutes to Happy Isles.
If you go to Glacier Point and/or Washburn Point later you can spot a lot of the trail you walked:
Yes, you can often do part or all of this trail in the winter, just check with the Rangers first. http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/vernalnevadawinter.htm
Sometimes the trail can be open for days in the winter then quickly closed due to ice. The restrooms/water faucet at the Vernal bridge aren’t open all year.
Photo below of Vernal Fall from Clark Point, February, 2004, by Sudharsan Sripadham.
“Visitor Fatality in Yosemite National Park – Yosemite News Release February 25, 2019
At approximately 12:30 p.m. on Sunday February 24, 2019, a park visitor was killed in an incident on the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park. X___ W___, 56, from Cupertino, California was hiking on the trail when she was struck by falling rock and ice and she succumbed to her injuries soon thereafter.
The Mist Trail, a popular trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Vernal Fall, is closed this time of year due to icy and hazardous conditions. The trail closure is clearly marked and there is a gate on the trail reminding visitors of the closure. W___ ignored the signs, went around the gate and the incident happened on the trail leading to Vernal Fall.”
Swimming or wading above waterfalls is dangerous. Almost every recent year someone, or even more than one person, has been swept over a Yosemite waterfall. Some people just got too close trying to get a picture. Others climbed over protective railings/fences. Look at: fatal, near fatal or close call incidents/accidents in camping, backpacking, climbing and mountaineering for details.
Please consider that besides the enormous risk you personally are taking when you climb over a railing meant to protect you, you are also being a role model for kids who are watching:
The campsites that are the best for a short walk back after a Half Dome or Mist Trail hike that took a bit longer than you expected and ended after the free shuttle buses are running, are those in higher numbered campsite loops (188 – 240 and 158 to 187) of Upper Pines campground. Map of Pines campgrounds:
Enhance your hike by reading:
http://www.nps.gov/yose/photosmultimedia/ytp.htm click on Beautiful but Deadly
The day hike gear section at Camping equipment checklist
Thunderstorm and lightning safety includes the answer to the question: Why can’t you swim during a lightning storm? A strike on a lake doesn’t kill all the fish in the lake.
see also: Cell phones in the wilderness which has advice on how/when to use a cell phone to contact 911 in the wilderness and a warning about interference between cell phones, iPods and avalanche beacons.
Can a person who is prescribed an epi-pen risk going into the wilderness? and some sting prevention notes are at: Anaphylaxis quick facts
John Muir compared Vernal and Nevada falls in the book The Yosemite.
“The Vernal, about a mile below the Nevada, is 400 feet high, a staid, orderly, graceful, easy-going fall, proper and exact in every movement and gesture, with scarce a hint of the passionate enthusiasm of the Yosemite or of the impetuous Nevada, whose chafed and twisted waters hurrying over the cliff seem glad to escape into the open air, while its deep, booming, thunder-tones reverberate over the listening landscape. Nevertheless it is a favorite with most visitors, doubtless because it is more accessible than any other, more closely approached and better seen and heard. A good stairway ascends the cliff beside it and the level plateau at the head enables one to saunter safely along the edge of the river as it comes from Emerald Pool and to watch its waters, calmly bending over the brow of the precipice, in a sheet eighty feet wide, changing in color from green to purplish gray and white until dashed on a boulder talus.”
Read the whole text at:
In the same book he recommended a one day hike of: “If I were so time-poor as to have only one day to spend in Yosemite I should start at daybreak, say at three o’clock in midsummer, with a pocketful of any sort of dry breakfast stuff, for Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, the head of Illilouette Fall, Nevada Fall, the top of Liberty Cap, Vernal Fall and the wild boulder-choked River Cañon.”
This would be about a 24 mile hike, starting with the Glacier Point “Four Mile” trail.
From Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862) by James M. Hutchings, a description of the trail nearing the original ladders up to Vernal:
“Upward and onward we toil; and, after passing a bold point we obtain, suddenly, the first sight of the Pi-wy-ack, or Vernal Fall. While gazing at its beauties, let us, now and forever, earnestly protest against the perpetuation of any other nomenclature to this wonder, than “Pi-wy-ack,” the name which is given it by the Indians, which means “a shower of sparkling crystals,” while “Vernal” could with much more appropriateness, be bestowed the name-giver, as the fall itself is one vast sheet of sparkling brightness and snowy whiteness, in which there is not the slightest approximation, even in the tint, to any thing “vernal.”
Still ascending and advancing, we are soon enveloped in a sheet of heavy spray, driven down upon us with such force as to resemble a heavy storm of comminuted rain. Now, many might suppose that this would be annoying, but it is not, although the only really unpleasant part of the trip is that which we have here to take, on a steep hill-side, and through a wet, alluvial soil, from which, at every footstep, the water spurts out, much to the inconvenience and discomfort of ladies—especially of those who wear long dresses.
As the distance through this is but short, it is accomplished, and in a few minutes we stand at the foot of “The Ladders.” Beneath a large, overhanging rock at our right, is a man who takes toll for ascending the ladders, eats, and “turns in” to sleep, upon the rock. The charge for ascending and descending is seventy-five cents; and, as this includes the trail as well as the ladders, the charge is very reasonable.
Formerly there were no means of ascending or descending this perpendicular wall of rock, except with ropes fastened to an oak-tree that grows in one of the interstices; and that, too, at great personal risk and inconvenience—so that but few persons would make the dangerous attempt.
Ascending the ladders, we reach an elevated plateau of rock, on the edge of which, and about breast high, is a natural wall of granite, that seems to have been constructed by nature for the especial benefit and convenience of people with weak nerves, enabling them to lean upon it, and look down over the precipice into the deep chasm below.”
It does take awhile to load, but the original ladders up to Vernal Falls can be seen at:
photo below by Quang-Tuan Luong/terragalleria.com, all rights reserved.
Five Silver Apron Injuries on Same Day
July 25, 2014 written by: Yosemite Search and Rescue
On Wednesday, July 16, at approximately 6 pm, three 17 year-old males arrived at the Yosemite Medical Clinic seeking medical attention for injuries to their legs, ankles, and feet. The subjects all sustained their injuries while sliding down the Silver Apron, a large, sloping granite area that the Merced River flows over, located in between Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, just east of Yosemite Valley, and which is a closed area. Moments later, two more 17-year-old males, unrelated to the previous group, walked into the clinic and, similarly, requested medical attention for lower extremity traumatic injuries caused by sliding down the Silver Apron.
Due to a language barrier, the exact details of how each of the five individuals hurt themselves are not known. One subject recounted entering the area and being surprised by how slippery the Silver Apron was, even where the granite was not wet. He further explained that when he started sliding down the Silver Apron, there was no way to slow down, let alone stop, before striking the pile of boulders and rocks at the base. The injuries sustained by the five subjects included lower leg and buttock abrasions, lower leg lacerations, and a sprained left ankle.
Every year at the Silver Apron, significant numbers of visitors are injured at the Silver Apron . . . Visitors either deliberately slide down the wet slope and then crash into the unavoidable pile of rocks at the entry to Emerald Pool, or, before they even have a chance to start sliding, they slip and fall on the slick granite. Often, hikers suffer more traumatic injuries than those sustained by the subjects mentioned above. There appears to be a correlation between a drop in the flow of the Merced River and an increase in the number of visitors injured at the Silver Apron. Visitors hiking along the Mist Trail are strongly advised to stay on the trail and away from the Merced River between the Happy Isles Trailhead and Little Yosemite Valley, especially when the river level drops. The smooth, polished granite of the river bed, whether wet or dry, is extremely slick, and the currents of the river remain deceptively powerful.”
Below, a hiker off trail wading into the Silver Apron, risking a slip and fall:
Info on the Yosemite Half Dome hike, with good advice in general:
The park recommends you leave around sunrise or earlier and have a pre-agreed, non-negotiable turnaround time, such as if we are not at the top by 3:30 p.m. we will turn around. (Remember that it can take a minimum ONE hour to get from the base of the subdome to the top.) Bring at least one gallon of water per person.
When the cables go up early in spring, the trail will be wet and icy in places and people are encouraged to be prepared for winter hiking conditions. Sometimes the cables do not go up as early as expected, due to snow. People who get May permits should verify that the cables are up before they do the long hike and find out the cables are not up. If there is a fire in the vicinity the cables can be closed.
There is a preseason lottery for permits to climb the cables to go to the top of Half Dome .
Why the permits? In summer of 2009 on Saturdays and holidays Half Dome hikers averaged 840 per day (estimated at a peak of 1100 to 1200) and people have had to wait up to an hour to go up.
Now a maximum 300 hikers are allowed (about 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers) each day.
Permits are required every day of the week, with each person needing their own individual permit. Up to four permits can be obtained under one reservation. There is a non-refundable application fee and a service charge for each permit. Reservations can be made through www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
Backpackers in the area can get a Half Dome hike permit with their backpack permit.
Approximately 50 permits will be available each day by lottery during the hiking season.
Saturday, Sunday, Friday and Monday are the lost popular days. https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermitsapps.htm
For the most current details go to http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm
As of 2016, wilderness permits issued outside the park are no longer valid for hiking to the top of Half Dome.
You can face misdemeanor charges if you go up without a permit – up to a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail.
The Half Dome cables were put up on June 2, 2017, May 27, 2016; May 2, 2015; May 23, 2014; May 24 2013; May 25 2012; June 22, 2011 and June 16, 2010 (twice as much snowpack in 2011/2010 as in 2012, 2013 and 2014). They were taken down Oct. 14, 2014/2013; Oct. 9, 2012; Oct. 10, 2011 and Oct. 11, 2010 (typically the day after Columbus Day, the second Monday of October).
Don’t go up in the rain, most deaths on Half Dome have occurred when people try to descend in wet weather.
Many people attempt the Half Dome hike unprepared:
Start hikes early, especially long ones like the all day half Dome hike from the valley and back. It can be sunny and dry at the start of the day and have fog/rain/lightning storms by mid day. As a sign at Half Dome, (which also applies to other peaks), warns:
Travel on Sub-dome and Half Dome
During and after lightning and rain storms
SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH
Have resulted from:
Falls on wet, slick rock
Lightning strikes to hikers on exposed terrain
EVALUATE THE WEATHER BEFORE
PROCEEDING PAST THIS POINT
If you are planning on camping on the way to Half Dome, read: