When you have no idea what lays in front of you, it’s probably easier to say “yes, I’m hikin’ this one with you.”
Woken up by an early morning cold breeze I shivered, my feet somehow got out from under the two scratchy but warm blankets and now they were turning into two icicles. It was beginning of July and even though it was generally really, really warm, the morning’s air was crispy and clear and chilly.
I didn’t mind it. Not at all. It was a very welcome change from the usual – being hot all day and night long. I got up from the bed and went to find a bathroom to complete important morning routines like brushing my teeth or trying to convince my short-cut hair to stop looking like if I spent the night somewhere in bushes in a desert.
All camp was quiet. Except for two early hikers who were just leaving for their today’s surely strenuous hike, everybody (but me, of course) was sleeping. The light has just started to get in the valley, although it would take the sun another two or three hours to get high enough to rise above Half Dome. The air smelled so nice that I wished my lungs were bigger so I could breath more of it in. I sneaked around as quietly as possible not to wake up anyone, grabbed my journal and my camera and wandered off among all the never-seen-so-tall trees.
About two or three hours later, when the sun started to peek out from behind Half Dome, all our party (fourteen people – five children, four teens, me in my twenties somewhere in the middle and four adults) has eaten some breakfast, packed our lunches and gone off into the wilderness. All right, it wasn’t such a big wilderness, hundreds of people have probably walked the same trail (or its first half, we actually didn’t meet more than ten people above Vernal Fall) the same day.
It was almost impossible to get on the shuttle. So, after we let two of them leave without us because they were overfilled, the two mums got on the bus with their five babies and the rest of us started to race the shuttle to Happy Isles. Of course, the shuttle won.
I didn’t know where we were going that day. I had no idea what was the plan, the mileage, the elevation, I even didn’t know if we were going to the top of some mountain or walk through the woods. Somebody had probably talked about it at some point before, but either I wasn’t there or I didn’t understand or hear. I know, I could have asked, right? Well, that wouldn’t be me. I just brought enough water and deducted that when we have the little children with us, we cannot go anywhere too far.
That was, in conclusion, right. It wasn’t ALL of us who went all the way up.
It was only the first hill and I thought I was gonna die. I was in zero condition and even this not so long but definitely the steepest hill I have walked since I had recovered from my ‘hips failure’ made me breathe like if I have just finished a marathon.
But even though I had to stop, sit down and do a breathing exercise under Sierra Point where you can see Illilouette Gorge, the view made me want to continue. We weren’t so high above the valley yet and even here it would have taken my breath away if I had any left. Yes, I definitely needed bigger lungs over there. 😀
We got to our first stop, a bridge over Merced river. That wasn’t so bad if this is the end, I thought. Oh, how wrong I was.
There’s a place to refill your water bottles, the water is drawn straight from the river. Even if you still have enough water or full bottles, in summer it’s great to just re-fill them because the water from the river is much cooler than the one you’ve brought from your campground. Also, you can find a restroom here – you won’t get this comfort until you get up to the top of Vernal Fall.
Not long after we left the first stop, a low rumble started to echo through the rocky valley which our path led through. And very soon after that, the mist came. Or was it rain? Something in between. “We’re not going any further, but you can join the teenagers, they’re going up the fall,” I was told. Of course, I started my way up there too! And I can tell you; if you turn around right before the real Mist Trail starts, you lose the most fun part! Well, if you are as childish as I am and getting soaking wet is fun for you.
Some people try really hard not to get completely drenched. But it doesn’t really work – or it didn’t in that heat. If you wear a waterproof jacket, you get so sweaty that the outcome is probably completely same. And in that case, I vote for being wet by the mountain water rather than my own sweat. You get dry very soon again anyway – the combination of heat and the light wind takes care of your wet clothes.
I started to walk through the mist with such an enthusiasm that I didn’t recognize myself. This feeling of something new and adventurous sent a literal life into my veins. And then I saw it, the thick cloud of mist covering everything in front of me. Only after about five minutes on the slippery rocky stairs (be very careful there, most of the time there’s nothing to prevent you from a fall into the fierce river), my hair was completely wet and curly and all the water was flowing into my eyes. The wind brought the mist straight in my face and as little streams were flowing down my face, I licked them. Lesson number /enter number, I don’t remember how many advices I’ve already given you/: do not lick the water flowing down your face if you were sweating before, it’s gonna taste terribly salty! Sorry if I just disgusted you, but it is how it is – this is a part of hiking too.
With my breath getting short again, I made it through a cave, which you think would offer you a rest from the infinite amount of water attacking your face, but the opposite is true; the wind gets even stronger there and the ground is completely flooded so you have to jump from one stone onto another to get through there with more or less dry shoes. On their way back, most people just walked straight through the water, shoes or no shoes. They were probably completely wet already anyway. I conquered all the unbelievably high steps and crept along a narrow rock ledge.
Then you have to just get down on a really smooth rock – more people slip here than on the wet stairs under the waterfall – and you can enjoy the view. Two days later I learned that the best view from here is in the morning when the sun makes the rocks look deep reddish-brown and a rainbow arches under the cliff.
I thought this was the end of our journey. Oh, no, no. I had no idea there was another waterfall about 1000ft above Vernal Fall. Of course, not straight above, these 1000ft were gained during something over a mile.
I caught up with the rest of the party after I spent few minutes trying to stop my bloody nose and then just putting a rolled paper tissue in. You have no idea how annoying it is to spend every other day at least thirty minutes trying to stop the blood flowing out of your nose. Or maybe you do. In that case, I’m really sorry for you.
We passed Emerald Pool – yes, you’ll probably think about how great it would be to just stop there and cool off on hot summer days.
Do NOT do this!
Even if you didn’t care that it’s illegal, you could at least care about your own life as swimming there could be very easily the last thing you would do in your life – if you don’t count calling for help while being carried by the strong flow towards the waterfall.
“You can turn here and go a loop back if you want to.” It was a really tempting thing to do. But I haven’t come so far to give it up now, no way I was just going back. And so we crossed the bridge and continued on our way.
The first part wasn’t hard at all. What more, I really did enjoy it. Walking amongst all the trees, hearing the water rushing nearby, skipping over rocks and watching squirrels and birds… All this with minimum people. I was wondering why more people don’t come here as this was probably one of the most beautiful passages of our way. Not the most fun, I admit that this title stayed with the part of Mist Trail leading towards Vernal Fall, but it had its own magic.
It started to rain slightly, although we didn’t see any clouds. They had to be hidden from our sight by the high cliff which foot we were standing at. And that was the moment when I realized it was going to be not so pleasant walk up there. It was tremendously hot, the sun shone right above our heads and my heart started to skip beats. Not proverbially, but literally. Since now on, for the rest of the hike up to the fall, leading on a rockfall, I had to stop every now and then (always trying to take these breaks in some sort of shade even though there really wasn’t so many trees or other plants creating this desirable condition).
The good thing about this trail is that almost all the way up you see the subject of your hard trying, your motivation, the Holy Grail of this hike.
And yes. At the same time you think that you cannot do it, that there is no way you can climb so high. But you can. And you will.
When we were almost at the top and I caught up with the first part of our group (there were two other people somewhere, but not too far, below me), we have decided it was time for lunch. Luckily, there was a tree growing out from the rocks (how or where it found enough soil to grow on was a mystery to me) which gave enough shade to all of us.
Not long after we pulled out our lunches, this hungry little being called squirrel found us. Now, when you are out there, do not feed the animals. Everybody will tell you this, they are wild and need to stay that way for their own good and ours too. If you befriend a bear, it will probably have to be shot because it is going to encounter more and more hikers and such a behaviour is dangerous, of course.
But what more, when eating out there, you’ll probably need to do more than just not to feed the animals. The squirrel was so audacious that it literally leaned against legs of one of us and climbed. And you should see what happened when I pulled out almonds with cocoa as a “dessert”. Well, I think I don’t need to tell you we had to leave.
We made it to the top! But I have one (good) advice for you. Unless you’re dying by exhaustion, have a low blood-sugar and your vision is blurred by the lack of energy (even though you should watch yourself and never allow this), have your lunch at the top, not even few feet below. It was really unpleasant to climb up there with our stomachs full. I personally thought I was going to throw up. Luckily (for me and the environment too) I kept it down.
I can tell you one thing for sure.
All the struggle was worth it.
When you get up there, it’s a whole new world. You walk through sand so fine you wonder how it got up there – or how does it not get blown down. You hike over rocks so smooth you think you could sleep on them (I don’t recommend it, they are still pretty hard and you would be probably pretty stiff and hurting all over after waking up). You cross a wooden bridge which looks like if it had grown right out of the rock. The water rushes down swiftly and you cannot help but stare at it. And, oh my, the view. You see the valley under you and can’t believe you have really hiked/climbed all the way up there.
You can drink straight from the river (be really careful when doing so, if you slip and get in the flow, you can expect a 594 feet long free fall and nobody will probably find you ever again). This possibility made me feel so free, so unrestrained… The opportunity of just drinking out of what nature has given to us, without any chemicals or cleansing process… It made me so happy I can’t even describe it. I felt alive, so bounded with everything around me and realized that this was the life I was born to live; going out into the wilderness, clean and healthy – and yes, so many people would say dangerous. But as long as you respect everything out there, you are fine. Respect and you will be respected.
I then refilled my bottles with the fresh water. I really needed that, I started to run short on the water somewhere in the middle of the steep ascent.
After some time just relaxing up there, watching the river rushing down, wild and fierce, it was time for us to go. I didn’t want to leave. I truly loved that place.
We took the other way going down, we got onto John Muir Trail. Here, another funny part awaits you; there are tens of little “waterfalls” in spring and early summer going down right over the trail. You will get wet again, but I can tell you: try your best to keep your feet dry. You have about 4 miles of descent ahead of you.
Thanks to the falling water, you will see many blooming flowers. It’s truly quite some sight. Although, when taking pictures, be still aware of the water. When even a light wind blows, the streams change their trajectory and your camera could be harmed.
It didn’t take us long to get to Clark Point even though we (well, mostly it was me) stopped frequently to admire Nevada Fall from a whole new perspective. John Muir Trail offers some amazing views, truly.
*on the next picture you can see the rockfall we were hiking/climbing up
From there you can either choose to continue on John Muir Trail which brings you back to the valley, avoiding Mist Trail completely. But that wouldn’t be any fun, right? So we got onto a trail leading back to the Vernal Fall and Mist Trail.
And got completely wet again. I slipped in the cave and drenched my shoes in the water so, for the rest of the way, my every step made this funny squelching sound.
Soon, we made it back to the base, some of us sooner than the others; at the Vernal Fall we split completely and everybody walked at their own pace. (Yes, I and one another member of the group were the last ones.) A shower and some dinner were very welcome and the comfort of laying down and just writing my diary made me so tired I went to sleep at around nine.
Stay safe on your hike!
- Stay on the established trail: do not swim or wade in the river and do not walk along the edge of the river.
- Observe warning signs and railings—these exist for your safety.
- Carry a head lamp (with fresh or extra batteries) in case you end up hiking more slowly or farther then planned and find yourself hiking back in the dark.
- Sprained ankles and knee injuries are common on this trail. There are many areas of loose rock/decomposed granite, mixed with steep steps, and water, which makes for slippery footing in places.
- Avoid becoming dehydrated or experiencing heat exhaustion. Drink plenty and drink often; pace yourself; rest in the shade; and eat salty snacks.
- The granite steps along the Mist Trail leading up to the brink of Vernal Fall can be slick and crowded. Consider making a loop by continuing on the trail, past the brink of Vernal Fall and Emerald Pool, taking the cutoff trail to Clark Point, and then hiking down the John Muir Trail.
Check out NP Yosemite’s guide for this hike: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/vernalnevadatrail.htm (Safety tips above recited from their website)
And have a spectacular day! 🙂