The Mist Trail: Yosemite's Signature Hiking Experience
Visitors to Yosemite National Park have plenty of choices when it comes to iconic landscapes. The nearly 12,000-square mile park is filled with granite walls, deep valleys, towering sequoias, and postcard-worthy waterfalls.
Located in north-central California in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Yosemite Valley was first preserved from development by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, creating a roadmap for what would eventually become the National Park System.
The park’s signature hiking experience is the Mist Trail, a relatively short, yet challenging journey that offers amazing up-close views of two waterfalls—when combined they are more than 900 feet tall. And, as the trail name indicates, you can expect to get wet. The falls’ enormous volume of water creates a misty shroud not to be missed.
Of course, this means you need to dress appropriately. It’s smart to be prepared for any weather in the high country, even in the summer. Park officials suggest dressing in layers to allow you to adjust to conditions, and a poncho or rain jacket is recommended to stay dry near the falls. You may even want to bring along waterproof pants.
Perhaps even more important is to wear hiking shoes that provide plenty of traction for the wet trails. You’ll be doing a lot of climbing, so a hiking stick may not be a bad idea as well.
From the Mist Trail, you can also access the John Muir Trail, and enjoy its iconic views of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and Half Dome, which has been described as one of the finest sights in the park.
Exploring the Trail
You have several options when taking on the Mist Trail, all of which start at Happy Isles in the eastern Yosemite Valley. The Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall are the two stars of the trip, but you’ll be overwhelmed by the views no matter what trail you decide to take.
The trail begins at 4,000 feet in elevation, and you’ll be climbing 1,000 feet to the top of Vernal Fall, and 1,900 feet to the top of Nevada Fall. So while the mileage numbers seem relatively low, it’s steep and a lot of climbing is involved.
The first section of the trail will take you to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, about .8 miles from the start according to the National Park Service. You’ll find an excellent view of the Vernal Fall here—crowds may get smaller from here on out as folks get their fill of climbing. After the footbridge, the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail diverge.
The Mist Trail will take you directly to the top of Vernal Fall via an impressive granite stairway of more than 600 steps. Once again, watch your footing and be prepared for the trail to live up to its name.
“The steep granite stairway next to the Vernal Fall is my favorite part,” said Tulika Srivastava of Sacramento, CA, who made the hike last year. “The view of the fall is incredible and mist from the falls is refreshing.”
Once you conquer those 600 steps and reach the top, the views of the 317-foot Vernal Fall are unforgettable. From this point, you can head back the way you came, take a longer route back via the John Muir Trail, or continue on the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Fall.
If you decide upon the latter, your climb will continue for another 1.5 miles up steep and rocky switchbacks, and past Emerald Pool and Silver Apron, before reaching the top of the 594-foot Nevada Fall. Once again, the view is spectacular and well worth the climb. Cross the footbridge over the Merced River above the fall to get an even better look.
The National Park Service estimates a round-trip time of three hours to get to the top of Vernal Fall, and 5-6 hours to travel to the top of Nevada Fall and back. Again, you can return back down the way you came via the Mist Trail, or if you’ve planned your time wisely, you can return on the John Muir Trail.
The John Muir Trail offers an alternative view of Nevada Fall, as well as a stunning view of Liberty Cap and the back of Half Dome. It does, however, mean more hiking. The Mist Trail is about a 2.5-mile hike back to the start, whereas the John Muir Trail covers four miles. If you are looking for even more mileage, you can also continue your hike all the way to Half Dome, which is a 14- to 16-mile round-trip via other trails.
A few quick tips on the hike before getting started:
The National Park Service classifies this as a “moderate” hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, and “strenuous” when traveling to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. Be prepared for the physical demands of the climbing.
Stay on established trails. You may not swim or wade in the river, and even walking along the edge of the river is prohibited to avoid accidents.
Bring plenty of food and water. Drinking water is available at the trailhead and the Vernal Falls Footbridge, but not on the rest of the trail. The National Park Service recommends bringing 1 quart of water to travel to the footbridge, 2 quarts for hiking to Vernal Fall and 3-4 quarts for the trip to Nevada Fall. If traveling in a group, every person should have at least some food and water in case the group gets separated. Do not feed the wildlife, and carry out all trash and food waste.
Bring a headlamp in case the trip takes longer than expected and you wind up traveling in dark conditions.
While pets are allowed in some areas of Yosemite, these trails do not allow them. Keep the dogs at home. You can read the full policy on pets at Yosemite here.
Once in Yosemite Valley, follow the signs to Curry Village. A trailside parking lot is available, but it’s usually filled early by those people starting their hike to Half Dome before dawn. For those who aren’t up before sunrise, park at Curry Village and hike on Southside Drive to the trailhead. Or take the free shuttle bus that covers the eastern half of Yosemite and get off at Happy Isles, stop #16.