Vernal Fall

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

About Vernal Fall


Hiking Distance: 2.4 miles round trip to top via Mist Trail
Suggested Time: 90-120 minutes

Date first visited: 2002-06-01
Date last visited: 2011-06-03

Waterfall Latitude: 37.72729
Waterfall Longitude: -119.54341

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Vernal Fall is a spectacular, classically-shaped waterfall plunging over a reported height of 317ft.

This waterfall makes up the lower step of the Giant Stairway, which can be thought of as a pair of giant steps with Nevada Falls making up the upper step.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_075_06032011 - Vernal Fall
Vernal Fall

And since it’s on the Merced River drainage system, it has year-round flow though its flow is strongest in the mid- to late Spring.

We know this firsthand because the greater the volume of the waterfall, the more it sprays the appropriately-named Mist Trail (i.e. the trail that went directly to the top of the falls).

Experience has taught us that this blasting mist tended to be the most intense during that peak snowmelt period.

Although we’ve noticed that this waterfall was immensely popular, it wasn’t quite as easy to access as the other famous waterfalls throughout Yosemite Valley.

Vernal_Fall_020_03202004 - Vernal Fall and Liberty Cap with a rainbow spanning across its base from the Lady Franklin Rock next to the Mist Trail
Vernal Fall and Liberty Cap with a rainbow spanning across its base from the Lady Franklin Rock next to the Mist Trail

That was because in order to get close to it, we had to do a somewhat moderate hike on the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail.

And in order to even get a decent but distant look at without the physical effort, then we’d have to drive towards the lookouts at the end of Glacier Point Road.

In this page, we’ll go into details on what we’ve experienced in both methods.

Experiencing Vernal Fall – hiking the Mist Trail

Vernal_Nevada_Trail.jpg - Vernal Fall Nevada Fall Loop - Green (paved part of John Muir Trail), Blue (Mist Trail), Purple (John Muir Trail)

This hike begins at the Happy Isles trailhead (signpost V24, adjacent to the far southeast end of the Upper Pines Campground).

Usually, no vehicles are allowed to this point.

However, whenever we weren’t camping at the Upper Pines, we were able to take one of the frequent shuttles from the large parking lot at Curry Village (signpost V22), which sat at the far eastern end of Yosemite Valley.

We also could’ve walked that distance (which I believe would be about a mile each way).

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_019_06032011 - The first mile along the John Muir Trail was mostly paved between the Happy Isles Trailhead and the Vernal Fall footbridge over the Merced River
The first mile along the John Muir Trail was mostly paved between the Happy Isles Trailhead and the Vernal Fall footbridge over the Merced River

Of course if we were lucky enough to score a spot in the Upper Pines Campground, it was quite literally just a quick hop, skip, and a jump to the Happy Isles trailhead.

This hike to the top of the falls was about 2 miles each way.

For the first mile, we followed a very busy and well-established trail that followed the raging Merced River before going uphill (this is the green line on the map shown above).

After the ascent peaked near the 3/4-mile point (where we were also able to view part of Illilouette Fall), the trail then quickly descended to the footbridge spanning the Merced River with our first glimpse at part of Vernal Fall.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_026_06032011 - Looking up at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock
Looking up at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock

Continuing beyond the footbridge, we had a choice of whether to take the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail.

Since we were interested in only going directly to Vernal Fall, we took the Mist Trail (the blue line on the map shown above).

This path followed the turbulent (especially in the Spring) Merced River from here right up to the top of Vernal Fall.

A short distance before we’d get to the granite steps and the misty part of the Mist Trail, there was a short spur (easy to miss) with a plaque.

Vernal_Fall_024_03202004 - Context of the Mist Trail climbing steeply along the Merced River with spray coming from Vernal Fall
Context of the Mist Trail climbing steeply along the Merced River with spray coming from Vernal Fall

It turned out that this detour led to a protruding rock jutting out onto the Merced River.

It was from here where we were able to get that classic view of the front of the waterfall with the Liberty Cap behind it.

This vantage point was called the Lady Franklin Rock, and I recalled seeing quite a few vending machines showing photos of Vernal Fall from this exact vantage point (or at least that was the case during my visits throughout the mid-2000s)!

Continuing to make the ascent along the Mist Trail, it wasn’t long before we rounded a bend and we had to face the mist coming from the waterfall.

Half_Dome_019_06072003 - Temporary shelter from the drenching mist of the Mist Trail
Temporary shelter from the drenching mist of the Mist Trail

It was in this spot where we needed to wear our wet weather gear to protect our clothing, our core body temperature (since the spray can be quite cold), and our electronics (especially our cameras).

The thing to watch out for here was the potentially slippery granite steps given that they were wet.

Since the Mist Trail was so popular, we had to squeeze our way through the bi-directional traffic while trying not to fall into the Merced River!

Just beyond the drenching part, the trail continued to climb up more granite steps (with some handrails and fences to keep us from being exposed to the dropoffs).

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_079_06032011 - Right in the middle of the misty part of the Mist Trail
Right in the middle of the misty part of the Mist Trail

Once at the top, there was a sloping granite plateau that descended right towards the brink of the Vernal Fall as well as the raging river.

From this point, we had the option of continuing up to the Nevada Fall or returning to the Happy Isles Trailhead.

Even for each of these choices, there were additional routes to choose from.

If we wanted to go straight back to the Happy Isles Trailhead via the Mist Trail, we just had to go back down the way we came.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_042_06032011 - The narrow final climb up the Mist Trail towards the brink of Vernal Fall
The narrow final climb up the Mist Trail towards the brink of Vernal Fall

However, if we wanted to make a loop hike out of this, we could get up the John Muir Trail by Clark Point, and then take the JMT back down to the Happy Isles Trailhead.

This latter option is discussed in the next section below.

Experiencing Vernal Fall – the view from near Clark Point and descending the John Muir Trail

Beyond the top of Vernal Fall, we continued on the trail as it followed the raging Merced River past the Emerald Pool and the Silver Apron.

By the way, the Silver Apron apparently used to be popular spots for Summertime swimming until recent deaths in this area caused the park service to prohibit going into the river there.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_057_06032011 - Looking across the Silver Apron when the Merced River was in its raging Spring time flow
Looking across the Silver Apron when the Merced River was in its raging Spring time flow

Just as the trail reached another junction near some porta-potty restrooms and a footbridge going over the Merced River, we turned right (going away from the bridge) and went uphill.

That uphill trail was a linking trail that would eventually join up with the the John Muir Trail at Clark Point.

It was about a mile downhill from the Panorama Cliffs (look for the thin black dotted line between Clark Point and the blue line on the map above).

Near the top of this ascent was a short spur trail leading to a lookout where we were able to get a dramatic top-down view of the entire waterfall.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_066_06032011 - Vernal Fall viewed from a lookout near Clark Point
Vernal Fall viewed from a lookout near Clark Point

Usually, there were people near the brink of the waterfall to give us a sense of the immense scale of the falls as the people looked puny compared to Vernal Fall itself.

Once at the John Muir Trail, there was the option of continuing uphill along the Panorama Cliffs towards Nevada Fall or descending down switchbacks to rejoin the Mist Trail near the Vernal Fall footbridge.

To conclude the Vernal Fall loop, we would generally prefer going down the John Muir Trail to complete the loop hike because it was easier on the knees compared to descending on the Mist Trail.

Experiencing Vernal Fall – view from Washburn Point or Glacier Point

If you don’t want to hike but still see Vernal Fall, then driving to the end of Glacier Point Road (G11) or one stop before that at Washburn Point (G10) would be the way to go.

Glacier_Point_004_06022011 - The Giant Stairway with the snow-capped Clark Range in the background
The Giant Stairway with the snow-capped Clark Range in the background

At Washburn Point, we could see both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall together, and we could gain a better appreciation for why the combination of the pair of major waterfalls was also referred to as the Giant Stairway.

Of course, panoramic views of the Clark Range as well as Half Dome and Mt Starr King were also possible from this lookout.

At the famous Glacier Point stop, we were able to get slightly less optimal views of the Giant Stairway.

However, we were also able to peer right down at Yosemite Valley, Tenaya Canyon, and see Half Dome appear so close it played some perspective tricks with our minds (i.e. it almost felt as if we could reach out and touch it).

Panorama_Trail_025_scanned_06012002 - Unusual view of the Giant Stairway as seen from the Panorama Trail
Unusual view of the Giant Stairway as seen from the Panorama Trail

Glacier Point was also the starting (or ending) point for a hike on the Panorama Trail, which yielded additional top-down views of Vernal Fall as well as Nevada Fall and Illilouette Fall.

Authorities

Vernal Fall resides in Yosemite National Park near El Portal in Mariposa County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Glacier_Point_002_06022011 - View of the Giant Stairway from Washburn Point during our June 2011 visit. This photo and the next several photos were taken from the same trip
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_004_06032011 - Looking downstream from the Merced River bridge right in front of the Happy Isles Trailhead right before the start of my hike to Vernal Fall in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_013_06032011 - Profile view of Illilouette Fall from the John Muir Trail during my June 2011 hike to Vernal Fall
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_028_06032011 - Looking upstream at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_031_06032011 - The Mist Trail beyond the Lady Franklin Rock detour as seen on my June 2011 hike
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_062_06032011 - Context of the steps of the Mist Trail and Vernal Fall looming just above it during my hike in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_073_06032011 - Direct look at Vernal Fall from the spray zone on the Mist Trail during my hike in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_078_06032011 - Continuing the misty ascent on the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_032_06032011 - Looking downstream at the steep Mist Trail with a morning rainbow during my June 2011 hike
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_034_06032011 - Another look downstream from higher up the Mist Trail during my hike in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_035_06032011 - Angled profile view of Vernal Fall as seen from the Mist Trail in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_040_06032011 - Another look back in the other direction while I was getting hit by mist on the Mist Trail during my June 2011 hike
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_043_06032011 - Narrow and steep granite steps leading up to the top of Vernal Fall during my June 2011 hike
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_045_06032011 - Looking back down at the Mist Trail as I was making the final climb up to the top of Vernal Fall in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_046_06032011 - Finally made it to the top of Vernal Fall on my June 2011 hike
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_048_06032011 - Looking down over the brink of Vernal Fall in its June 2011 flow
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_051_06032011 - I noticed this colorful blue bird with a black head during my Vernal Fall hike in June 2011
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_062_06032011 - Going up some wet granite steps into the misty part of the Mist Trail
Vernal_Nevada_Loop_155_06032011 - Looking back at horseback riders going up the John Muir Trail during my return to the Happy Isles along the John Muir Trail in June 2011
Vernal_Fall_002_02252006 - Contextual look up at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock in February 2006
Vernal_Fall_010_02252006 - The view of Vernal Fall from near Lady Franklin Rock with lots of snow in February 2006
Vernal_Fall_023_02252006 - Unusual sidelit view of Illilouette Fall as seen from the John Muir Trail in February 2006
Vernal_Fall_004_03202004 - Looking upstream at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock in March 2004
Vernal_Fall_018_03202004 - Broad view of Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock in March 2004
Vernal_Fall_023_03202004 - Following the Mist Trail and the afternoon rainbow during our hike in March 2004
Vernal_Fall_025_03202004 - About to head into the misty part of the Mist Trail. This photo was taken on a sunny March afternoon in 2004
Vernal_Fall_044_03202004 - Vernal Fall fronted by a nearly full arcing rainbow in March 2004
Vernal_Fall_048_03202004 - Contextual wide angle look at Vernal Fall and Mist Trail as seen in March 2004
Vernal_Fall_057_03202004 - View of Vernal Fall from just past the misty part of the Mist Trail during our March 2004 hike
Vernal_Fall_Clark_Point_001_03202004 - Vernal Fall from Clark Point as seen in the late afternoon March 2004
Vernal_Fall_Clark_Point_016_03202004 - Broad view of Vernal Fall from Clark Point in March 2004
Washburn_Point_004_05202004 - Full context of Giant Stairway from Washburn Point
Illilouette_Fall_004_05212004 - Full context of Giant Stairway from the Panorama Trail
Illilouette_Fall_010_05212004 - Vernal Fall viewed from the Panorama Trail
Half_Dome_001_06072003 - Looking upstream at Vernal Fall from the Lady Franklin Rock in June 2003
Half_Dome_012_06072003 - Approaching the misty mess of the Mist Trail during our Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_015_06072003 - Direct look at Vernal Fall throwing up a lot of pre-dawn mist during our Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_021_06072003 - Angled look at Vernal Fall as I was nearing the end of the spray zone of the Mist Trail in June 2003
Illilouette_Fall_005_06012002 - Illilouette Fall seen in profile from within the first mile of the trail
Vernal_Fall_012_06012002 - Partial view of the Vernal Fall from the Vernal Fall footbridge in June 2002
Vernal_Fall_014_06012002 - Looking downstream from the Vernal Fall footbridge in June 2002

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We’ll describe our preferred route from Los Angeles all the way to Curry Village deep in the heart of Yosemite Valley.

We figured that Curry Village would be the most logical starting place for this writeup since it has a large parking lot as well as being pretty close to the Happy Isles Nature Center and Trailhead.

Happy Isles Nature Center and Trailhead was the start of the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail, which ultimately leads past Vernal and Nevada Falls to Half Dome and other backcountry spots.

So our route leaves Los Angeles on the I-5 north and when we descend into the Grapevine (some 2 hours from home), we then take the Hwy 99 through Central Valley towards Fresno.

Then, we hop onto the Hwy 41 at Fresno which leads us to the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park via Oakhurst.

Continuing on Hwy 41 (now Wawona Road), we then take this for the next 60-90 minutes (passing through Wawona) all the way into Yosemite Valley and eventually to Curry Village to the far east side of the valley.

Overall, this drive would take roughly 6 hours or more depending on traffic. From Curry Village, they generally don’t allow public traffic east of there (unless you’re camping at the Upper and Lower Pines Campground) so we’d have to take a shuttle and stop at the Happy Isles Nature Center and Trailhead.

Bottom up sweep of Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock. Notice the tiny people on the right side of the sweep - they're about to find out how the Mist Trail got its name


Top down sweep of the falls from just beyond the wet part of the Mist Trail. The sweep ends in a rainbow further downstream


Right to left sweep from the brink of the falls


Right to left sweep starting with the Silver Apron and ending at the Emerald Pool


Left to right sweep starting with direct view of Vernal Fall and ending with the mist from the waterfall spraying the Mist Trail


Following the falls from its brink to its base as seen from somewhere near Clark Point


Swirling sweep from right at the brink of the turbulent Merced River leaping off at Vernal Fall from atop the wet portion of the Mist Trail


Sweep of the eastern side of the Glacier Point panorama showing Vernal and Nevada Falls as part of the sweep as well as Half Dome and Mt Starr King

Tagged with: yosemite, mariposa, merced, mist trail, john muir trail, jmt, half dome, lady franklin, clark point, happy isles, curry, california, waterfall, giant stairway, glacier point, washburn point, panorama trail, liberty cap, sierra



Visitor Comments:

Beautiful Vernal Falls February 17, 2016 9:33 pm by _Anonymous232 - Thank you so much for all the pictures of Vernal Falls and the commentary. We walked up the trail the first of February, 1959 when we were on our honeymoon. A couple days later the snow fell so it was good we went there when we did. I purchased a poster of the Falls, had… ...Read More
Take a raincoat! May 30, 2011 2:34 am by _Anonymous69 - The Mist Trail remains our most memorable hike in Yosemite, Summer of 2010. Two families with four kids 11-14 years old arrived at the Park in the afternoon and we wanted to do one hike that day. One of the adults had heard of the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and we took the shuttle… ...Read More
Please help identify waterfall April 11, 2011 4:57 pm by Jackie Miller-Dunn - Please help my family identify this waterfall! My Great Uncle Jerry was a fighter pilot in WWII and he loved to take photos. This is one of his photographs. I have always been drawn to this photo and have not been able to identify the location. My Great Uncle Jerry was shot down in Northern… ...Read More
My Hike to Vernal Falls September 28, 2008 3:05 am by Emily - I had alot of fun in Yosemite. I hiked to the top of Nevada and Vernal Falls (just to tell you; I am 10 so it was alot [of hiking] lol). I got soaked on the mist trail because Vernal Falls was raging. While my family was walking up to Nevada Falls, we had a… ...Read More

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