Nevada Fall is a mammoth 594ft waterfall. Watched over by the Liberty Cap, it makes up the upper step of the Giant Stairway (with Vernal Falls being the lower step). Thus, it's part of the massive Merced River drainage so it flows year round.
I've read that the local Native Americans called this waterfall "Yo-wy-we," which roughly translated into something like a "worm." In my mind, I was able to envision kind of worm-like quality when I was able to see its rushing waters leap from its brink up close. However, instead of a worm, I was envisioning more of a slinky as the plume seemed like it was pumping water as if a thick white slinky was expanding and contracting on its way down the initial plunge before hitting a slope and continuing down to the Silver Apron and Emerald Pool well downstream.
Furthermore, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell (perhaps one of the few members of the Mariposa Battalion in 1851 who first appreciated the scenery) ended up giving the name of the waterfall that stuck - Nevada, which was a Spanish adjective for "snowy." He did this because the plume of plunging water reminded him of an avalanche. By the way, the intent of the Mariposa Battalion was to evict the resident Miwok tribe to a reservation in Central Valley so white settlers could continue prospecting for gold. So even though the chain of events from that fateful mission eventually resulted in Yosemite's protection by law, I'm sure there must've been some bitter moments from the Native American perspective since blood was spilled and ancestral homes and way of life were lost.
Finally, unlike other named waterfalls in the park, there seemed to be a bit of ambiguity regarding whether Nevada Falls should or shouldn't have the last "s". I've seen just as many instances of the spelling being done both ways. Personally, I could care less about this minor detail, but generally speaking, my habit is to include the last "s" unless the consensus convention just so happens to omit it. In this instance, I omitted the last "s" because I followed some of the published literature that I happened to own and read.
Directions: Julie and I have visited this waterfall several times, and not all of the visits involved the same trail or vantage points. So to give you an idea of the ways we've managed to experience Nevada Fall, we'll describe them individually below...
In my mind, the most straightforward way of getting close to the waterfall would be by hiking up from the Happy Isles trailhead (signpost V24; see the green line on the map above) and take the Mist Trail all the way to the top of the waterfall (see the blue line on the map above) then hike the John Muir Trail (JMT; see the purple line on the map above) back down to the trailhead to complete the loop. The benefit of doing the hike this way was to get most of the elevation gain out of the way early on (when we wouldn't be as tired) through the shorter (and wetter) Mist Trail then do the longer John Muir Trail on the descent which might be a little easier on the knees since the JMT surface would have less of the unforgiving granite surface to jar the joints on. Anyways, the trail description here will be given in this manner.
As for accessing the trailhead, usually no private vehicles could be driven further east of Curry Village, but there was generally some parking in the large lot at Curry Village where then we were able to take a shuttle to the Happy Isles Nature Center. It was also possible to hike a mile between Curry Village and Happy Isles. In the past, we've also stayed at the Upper Pines Campground a few times, and it was generally a quick walk from the campground to the Happy Isles.
As for the loop hike itself, I believe it ended up being about 6 miles round trip. The first couple of miles were devoted to getting up and beyond Vernal Fall, and I'll punt you to that page if you're interested in a more detailed trail description of that section.
Beyond the brink of Vernal Fall, the trail continued following the southern banks of the Merced River heading upstream. We passed along the Emerald Pool and Silver Apron section of the Merced River. These landmarks were significant because in Summers past, the flow of the river was calm enough to enable some visitors to slide on the Silver Apron and swim in the Emerald Pool. However, given recent deaths in this part of the park as well as the violence of the Spring flow (I wouldn't even think of getting in the water when I can see any hint of whitewater), signs were erected to prohibit entering the river.
Anyways, just beyond these landmarks, we reached another footbridge crossing over the Merced River to continue on the Mist Trail. Alternately, we could've gone up a connecting trail to hook up with the John Muir Trail near Clark Point (described in the Vernal Fall page), but since I proposed going up the Mist Trail then down the JMT, I'll continue with this route though there are plenty of ways to do this hike given the numerous interconnecting trails here.
Crossing over the footbridge, we started to see the upper parts of Nevada Fall. The trail continued along a somewhat flatter and forested section (essentially taking a breather from all the climbing we did up to this point) before reaching another series of granite steps.
Just before going up the next series of granite steps, there was an unmarked detour leading to a lookout on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Merced River and the front of Nevada Falls (see photo at the top of this page and the headline photo of this hike). I'd have to say that this was one of my favorite spots to have a picnic (many hikers tend to miss this spot) with a view of the waterfall before continuing on with the next long climb. But with that said, we had to be careful at this viewpoint because sometimes mist would reach this outcrop and wet the granite surface thereby making it slippery. And since the surface tended to slope towards the dropoff and into the river, we can't emphasize enough the slip-and-fall hazard if you get to close to the edge.
Back on the Mist Trail, we then tackled the granite steps. At least the benefit of this section of the trail was that the steps were dry (unlike the route below Vernal Fall) so we were able to take scenic breaks at several of the switchbacks which offered profile views of the gushing waterfall. In a way, these short scenic breaks helped to keep our mind off the fatigue from the constant climbing. But eventually, the top of the climb terminated at a junction with the John Muir Trail (near some port-a-potties or restrooms, I recalled).
Going left at the junction would've entered Little Yosemite Valley and continued the route to the summit of Half Dome or a connecting trail to Cloud's Rest as well as the continuation of the John Muir Trail to Tuolumne Meadows and beyond. But we went to the right, which headed towards the footbridge above Nevada Fall. However, before getting to that footbridge, we found an unmarked and easy-to-miss path that descended the granite towards a viewpoint with railings right by the brink of the waterfall. It was this viewpoint that I best appreciated some of the adjectives used to describe this waterfall from avalanches to worms to a slinky on steroids (which was in my mind's eye).
Back on the main trail, we then continued towards the Nevada Fall footbridge. Just beyond the footbridge, there was another little area where people were relaxing near the brink of the falls, but we had to be careful not to get too far on the sloping edges as there were no guardrails this time.
Now, as we headed away from the waterfall (continuing in the direction back to the Happy Isles trailhead), we passed by a trail junction with the Panorama Trail. At and around this trail junction, the trail involved some flooded sections and stream crossings (though it might not be as flooded outside of the peak snowmelt period). Generally, the flooded sections were straightforward to traverse, but they might get the socks wet without aids like hiking sticks for balance or Gore-tex high tops to keep the feet protected from the water. The trail then curled and traversed through a shaded and forested section before opening out beneath the so-called Panorama Cliffs.
In the Panorama Cliffs section, we were able to view both Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap together as well as the backside of Half Dome. For some reason, when I see Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap together, I'm reminded of the letters "L" and "J" given their orientation and shape. In any case, this section was another of my favorite spots to view and photograph Nevada Falls since we could see the entire waterfall while the Liberty Cap made the scene much more interesting.
During the peak snowmelt period, we've experienced dripping water from the cliffs right onto the trail. It was almost as if we were walking through rain on a dry day. I suspect this was due to snowmelt that drained an area that spilled over the Panorama Cliffs. However, in the Winter time, the park service warned of sharp icicles forming and falling here thereby causing its closure during those cold months.
As we walked further along this open section beneath the Panorama Cliffs, the perspective of the Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls continued to change until we reached the next couple of switchbacks. Eventually, these switchbacks ended at another junction near Clark Point where the path on the right descended back towards the footbridge near the Emerald Pool and Silver Apron between Vernal and Nevada Falls.
Continuing the descent on the John Muir Trail, the path got a bit steeper as we encountered more switchbacks. Although this section of trail was generally pretty featureless (at least relative to the rest of the hike to this point), the saving grace was that we saved this for last to help alleviate the stress on the joints (especially the knees) while not really missing much in terms of sights since I'm sure the objective at this point would be to finish the hike.
The John Muir Trail eventually joined up with the familiar start of the Mist Trail near the Vernal Fall footbridge, and from there, it was another mile on the paved trail back to the Happy Isles trailhead. On my most recent visit in June 2011 (which was solo), it took me a little over 5 hours to do the entire hike, including all the breaks in between. So despite the modest distance, the 4 difficulty rating I gave this waterfall was largely because of this hike.
If hiking for most of the day to get close to Nevada Falls doesn't sound appealing or palatable, then viewing it from afar from Washburn Point or Glacier Point would be the way to go. This was explained in detail on the Vernal Fall page.
As for driving directions, Washburn Point can be reached on the Glacier Point Road at signpost G10. Glacier Point is at the end of the Glacier Point Road at signpost G11.
For a little bit of a quieter experience, it's also possible to see Nevada Falls from a distance from the summit of Sentinel Dome. The hike to get there and its top is explained on the Yosemite Falls page, so I'll punt you there for details. The trailhead for the Sentinel Dome Trail is also on Glacier Point Road at a car park by signpost G8.
Lastly, Nevada Falls can be seen on the Panorama Trail. Actually, there were a couple of noteworthy spots I could think of.
The first was along the first mile or so of the Panorama Trail leaving from Glacier Point. From there, we were able to get Washburn Point-like views except there were more foreground trees and other features to less conventional views we'd otherwise get from the more established lookouts. A detailed description of the Panorama Trail for the first two miles from Glacier Point, see the Illilouette Fall page.
Beyond Illilouette Fall and the footbridge over Illilouette Creek, the trail climbed up a pretty long series of switchbacks before flattening out and gradually descending towards the John Muir Trail. In that stretch between the end of the climb and the JMT junction, we were able to get views similar to the Panorama Cliffs section of the JMT. However, I'd say the view on the John Muir Trail was better and less blocked by trees. A brief description of the Panorama Trail beyond Illilouette Creek was given on the Yosemite Falls page.
Bottom up sweep starting with the Giant Stairway then zooming out showing the full context of the view from Washburn Point
Direct view of the falls from a viewpoint along the Mist Trail. Notice some companion waterfalls due to the high snowpack.
Dizzying sweep from the brink of the falls starting down the canyon and ending right at the railing next to the falls. I can see why the Native Americans associated this falls with a worm (yo-wy-we), because the plume does remind me of a slinky.
Contextual right to left sweep starting at the John Muir Trail and ending at the Liberty Cap/Nevada Falls combo