The Mist and Muir Trails with Vernal and Nevada Falls – Yosemite National Park
The Mist Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park and for good reason – you get the chance to see two waterfalls and it is unlike any hike in the park. The Mist Trail features a set of stairs to reach the top of Vernal Falls over 600 steps and rock filled switchbacks to get to the top of Nevada Falls. If that does not interest you, you can always take the Muir Trail to both locations which is made up of well maintained switchbacks. Here is a map to demonstrate the routes to reach both falls.
This is really a choose your own adventure – you can make it a loop trail or a there and back trail and you have two trails to work with to mix and match. The recommended route is to take the Mist Trail up to the top of Vernal Falls (1.5 miles into the trail) and then Nevada Falls (3 miles into the trail) and the Muir Trail down (about 5 miles back to the beginning of the trail) for a total of 9 miles. This is so that you have the opportunity to experience the uniqueness of the Mist Trail and not have to navigate the often very wet granite stairs on the way down and can instead swap out for nice switchbacks downhill. We used this great post outlining the options to plan our day.
I was good with this plan but even knowing all this ahead of time, it did not properly prepare me and my fear of heights/steep ledges. We assumed this was going to be a 9 mile endeavor so we were committed to the long haul. From the parking area, it is about a half mile to the start of the Mist/Muir Trails. We reached the trailhead marker at 740A – let’s go!
This trail does not give many breaks and starts immediately with steep uphill climbing on a well paved path to reach the bridge of which the falls’ water leads into. You can even get a sneak peak of Vernal Falls in the background if you look closely at the right angle.
At this juncture, you have the choice of going left to the Mist Trail (stairs, climbing, etc) or right to the Muir Trail (switchbacks). We would be going left to the Mist and then returning down on the right Muir Trail – plan in place and we were ready to go.
The Mist Trail continued uphill on the paved walkway for a while until suddenly the stairs appeared. It was like we were thrown into those stairs to Mordor that Frodo and Sam climbed – I was not into it. I barely even noticed the beauty of Vernal Falls – only the force at which the water came crashing down cause the most intense mist (ha, mist, Mist Trail, got it) that covered the stairs in water. Just look at how intense these look!
Needless to say, I thank Kevin for most of the photo work in this section as I spend most of the time on all my limbs trying to keep as many points of contact on the ground as possible. Even though there is a pole on the left hand side for a majority of the stairs, it was entirely too close to the edge of the world for me. I was soaked and quite muddy when this was all over – always bring wet wipes with you on trails – you never know when they will come in handy! Funny, I barely even noticed the climb being cardiovascularly challenging because I was so terrified – I just kept my head down and kept climbing… my face says it all.
Once we were done with the wet portion of the stairs, I could breathe a huge sigh of relief. I looked back at the falls and could finally enjoy it.
But that relief ended fast when I noticed even more steep stairs but at least these were dry. I was once again back on all fours to navigate up but this part was more steep like climbing attic stairs.
The final set of stairs was back to Mordor style but these were super narrow – at least I could hold on to the pole this time. With Kevin a significant distance ahead, I asked (well, yelled) if this was the last section of stairs – he responded “yes” and just to get through the last part.
And I did. And it was flat ground. And it was amazing. We were at the top of Vernal Falls!
I was grateful for two things – to be done this portion of the trail and to not have to go down those stairs to get back to the car. Honestly, that part was so ridiculous and it seems that no matter how many times we climb these trails, the fear never goes away or gets “conquered”. The fear is still there and I still continue to complete these insane trails. I also cannot imagine navigating this section with peak season and a non-COVID crowd – I think I would have cried trying to figure this section out with people also passing me.
After spending a few minutes enjoying the view (and another waterfall rainbow!) we turned into the river to continue on the trail. A few minutes in, we found a nice spot in the sun by the river to dry off and enjoy a well earned snack – banana bread and jerky!
Another split in the trail presented itself – left to continue on the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls or right to go on the Muir Trail to Nevada Falls via Clark Point. So at this point, if you took the Muir Trail up the Vernal Falls, you would continue left to the top of Vernal Falls and avoided all that stair nonsense – congrats. We continued our journey left on the Mist Trail up to Nevada Falls.
The next section was a tranquil walk through the forest in and around the river – we both really enjoyed this section and we had it to ourselves.
But the tranquility did not last very long as we heard the rawr of Nevada Falls getting closer. Then the second climb began but this time it was a series of steep switchbacks up rocks. At least climbing up dry rocks was much easier though we definitely felt the cardiovascular push here. We made it up this section in about 20 minutes and was not nearly as scary at the Mordor stairs – though I was grateful to not be going down these as they were quite steep. Thank you Muir Trail!
At the top, another decision point. Turn left to go up to Half Dome and associated trails or turn right to continue to the top of Nevada Falls. It was hard to believe if you wanted to summit Half Dome that you had to climb all this first – that is an intense day and the most terrifying part has not even occurred yet. Half Dome (for those interested) requires a reservation to climb (lottery system) and that was always tough to get, even before COVID. This time of year, the cables to climb are not up yet so if Half Dome is on your list, do not come in the spring unless you are an experienced climber with your own gear to tackle it yourself without the installed cables.
We continued right on the Mist Trail and the scenery changed into the most wonderful picture – the trees gently swaying, the river glistening in the sunlight and quickly moving to the falls, and flat surface. It was unlike anything on the trail so far and it was really beautiful.
We crossed over the bridge and claimed our victory – we made it to the top of Nevada Falls!
After our photo shoot at the top, we sat and enjoyed our lunch. The wide park in front of us and Liberty Cap looming on top of us. Trick with trail food is to bring something you are excited to eat – keeps the motivation going especially during long trails. If interested, check out this post on what trail food and other items we pack on long trails – here!
While we loved the view up here and could have stayed for hours, we knew we still had over half the journey down back to the car. We packed up and continued across the way to pick up the Muir Trail. As we approached the trail sign, we noted another group of hikers standing at it looking at their phones and a gate closed.
I started to panic. I could NOT go down the way we came. How did I miss that this portion of the Muir Trail – what was supposed to be my saving grace – was closed?? Was I willing to risk falling rock??
After consulting AllTrails that confirmed this part of the trail was indeed closed and there was no review of recent hikers attempting this portion to confirm or deny the claims of falling rocks, the rest of the hikers turned back to return down the Mist Trail while I pulled up the picture of the trail.
While I was not pleased about it, we could go back down the Mist Trail by Nevada Falls through the steep rock filled switchback but at Vernal Falls, we could pick up the Muir Trail via Clark Point which avoided the need to use the Mist Trail and Mordor Stairs. It was at least a compromise since I was going to need a lot of help if we needed to take the Mist Trail the entire way down. I am so happy I took that photo at the beginning – make it a habit for yourself!
I was a bit of a mess trying to get down the rock filled switchbacks but by going down most of the way on my behind, I managed to get down. For reference, there is rock ridge between the waterfall and Liberty Cap in the photo below – that is the rock filled switchbacks. We must have taken a wrong turn through the forest because that ended up being more dicey than the tranquil walk I recalled on the way up.
Eventually, we made it back to the split in the trail – if we kept going straight, we would hit the top of Vernal Falls and if we turned left we would pick up the Muir Trail via Clark point. This section was less than half a mile of uphill but I was so happy to be going uphill than downhill. And I have to say, I am happy for the Clark Point detour as this view is stunning!
I could have kissed the ground I was so happy to be on the Muir Trail. The switchbacks on flat and well groomed trail was such a treat. On our way down, a ranger greeted us and asked if we saw any bears on the trail. “Umm, no” – oh boy, should we have been worried about bears too though this trail? Too much at once. We did get some awesome photos going down this trail of the opposite side of the valley.
Before we knew it, it was 1240P and we were at the first decision point to Vernal Falls – left to Mist Trail and right to Muir Trail. We came down the Muir Trail so to the left was the Vernal Falls bridge and the right was the Mist Trail back to Mordor Stairs – and boy was I happy to not turn right.
The bridge area was so crowded! I think on the entire trail we say maybe 20 people but going down back to the car from this part there were exponentially more. Start this popular trail early!
By 1P, we were back at the starting point. According to the Fitbit, we completed 9 miles in just under 5 hours with a 3172 ft elevation gain – this includes time for breaks, photos, and lunch.
The half mile walk back to the car felt like awhile after 9 miles, especially as our legs felt like jello. The parking lot that was closed when we arrived had opened but was packed with cars. Even as we made our way to the street parking, the area was packed with cars both parked and looking for parking.
I can understand why this trail is so popular. It is truly a unique experience through a wide variety of obstacles that many will find both challenging, fun, and rewarding. If you are going with children, I would recommend taking the Muir all the way up and down – I could barely keep track of myself on the Mist Trail and I could not even conceivably imagine needing to worry about another human. Trail is definitely a must do – especially during peak waterfall season in the spring. If you chose to do the Mist Trail – make sure you are wearing excellent shoes with trustworthy traction and that everything you have can be attached to your body. As one of my favorite Disney attractions puts it, “You will get wet, you may get soaked”.