During our 2 week summer vacation, my family dedicated 3 days to exploring Yosemite. We could have spent 3 weeks and still not have experienced everything the National Park has to offer. On day 1 we completed a hike in Inyo National Forest just outside the park and then explored Yosemite by car. We drove, parked and walked in the various regions of Yosemite and set our hiking plan for the following 2 days. Our original itinerary included hiking Half Dome, but 2 fires in southern Yosemite left the valley filled with smoke. Since we were traveling in August, we anticipated many dry waterfalls, but thanks to a record amount of winter snow in the Sierra Mountains, the falls continued to flow due to the excessive snow melt. We made the easy decision to spend our remaining 2 days exploring some of Yosemite’s most beautiful falls.
Waterfall height: 2,425′
Yosemite Falls, consisting of upper, middle and lower waterfalls, is one of the highest waterfalls in the United States. We began our trek on the Lower Falls trail, hiking 3.5 miles to the top of the Upper Falls. The trail included many switchbacks which made it slightly easier to navigate the 3,000 foot elevation gain. Around the first mile mark, we arrived at Columbia Rock, pausing to enjoy the wonderful view of the Upper Falls and a smoky view of Half Dome and the Valley. We continued on to the summit, climbing the steep and rocky trail in full sun. Once at the top, we descended a narrow path on the face of the wall and peered over the side of a thinly railed landing to see the falls plunging to the ground. We then traversed the big granite rocks to get close to the water source that feeds the falls. We don’t often stop and just relax during our hikes, but the beauty of the pool of water and the view from atop the falls kept us spellbound. We sat with our feet in the cold water, feeling the hot sun rays on our skin, mesmerized by the water that tumbled from the small water fall into the roaring Upper Falls.
Click here for the AllTrails map of our hike
Waterfall height: 317′
On our second hiking day, we trekked the Mist Trail to the John Muir Trail, making a loop along the Merced River that passed Vernal Falls, Silver Apron and Nevada Falls. We began at Happy Isles Trailhead, where there is a series of rocks and “isles” in the Merced River. The pathway was macadam and quite crowded with visitors for the .8 miles to the Vernal Falls Footbridge, where many travelers stopped their journey. We continued up the Mist Trail, which consisted of over 600 rocky steps that were wet and slippery due to the spray from the waterfall.
The wet rocks certainly were cause for caution, but I found myself worrying more about the inexperienced hikers attempting to get to the top of the falls. I saw people in sandals, those who were unfit, and some who were downright terrified. There was a woman ahead of me who was literally crawling up the wet steps. As we got close to the top of Vernal Falls, the trail narrowed making it impossible for people to pass in 2 directions. A man was trying to descend, but there was not enough room for him to get by the hikers ahead of me. I could see the fear in his face and he wasn’t very rational. He pushed past those ahead of me and actually wrestled my hand off the safety railing to squeeze past. I was very relieved that once at the top, most people did not continue on to Nevada Falls. One reason being that I prefer to hike in solitude, but the main reason was our safety.
The falls were lovely and powerful! There was a perpetual rainbow shining in the sunlight. Had I been alone, I am sure that I would have stood watching the tumbling water without regard for time.
Waterfall height: 594′
After passing Emerald Pool, the water source at the top of Vernal Falls, the trail became dry and rocky. The 2 mile section included switchbacks and large rocks that I truly enjoyed climbing. It was peaceful trekking and as we neared Nevada Falls, we could hear the water thundering to the ground. Once at the top, we could see the Merced River feeding the falls. I was awestruck and thrilled to be standing so close to the rushing water. I felt my heart pounding and a smile on my face that I could not control.
I spent some time exploring the river before we crossed the bridge and moved onto the John Muir Trail. I fell in step with a JMT through hiker from Australia and we chatted about her experience over the previous 3 weeks. Her stories served to solidify my goals to hike the John Muir Trail in the near future. The hike down was easy due to long switchbacks and the shade of the large trees. We stopped at the Vernal Falls Footbridge to use the bathroom facilities and to fill up on water from the piped fountain. The loop was 6.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 2,200′. We walked another .75 miles to our vehicle and called it a very wonderful day.
Click here for the AllTrails map of the trail loop
Learn more about hiking these trails by visiting the National Park Service site.
Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trails
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