Originally, I wanted to include details hiking Yosemite’s Mist Trail in my previous overnight trip to Yosemite post. However, it quickly became a monster of a post, so I decided to split this section out to make things easier to digest. If you’re not familiar with the Mist Trail, it’s a popular day hike from Yosemite Valley that provides spectacular views of Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. In the springtime, these falls are thunderous – it’s definitely well worth the uphill climb!
Overview: Hiking the Mist Trail – John Muir Trail Loop
Start & End: Happy Isles Trailhead near Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley
Distance: 6.7 miles
Time: 4 – 6 hours for entire loop, depending on pace and snack / lunch breaks
Notes: Slippery rock stairs leading up to Vernal Falls, some short & rocky switchbacks leading up to Nevada Falls
Overall, the Mist Trail – John Muir Trail Loop is a moderate to strenuous hike, depending on your approach. It’s easily accessible from the valley floor, which makes it a very popular spot for solo hikers and families alike. This hike can be divided into three main points: Vernal Falls Bridge, Top of Vernal Falls, and Top of Nevada Falls. Because of the slippery climb leading up to the top of Vernal Falls, I definitely recommend wearing shoes with good traction and support!
Starting the Hike at Happy Isles
Near the Happy Isles Trailhead, there is a parking lot with a moderate number of parking spots. When I arrived on a Monday morning at 8:30am, the lot was only 30% filled. When I left around 1:30pm, the lot was mostly full but still had several open spots. Since this is part of bear country, the park requires all visitors to store any scented goods (food, toiletries, etc.) in the bear boxes at the entrance of the lot.
From the parking lot, it’s a short walk to the trailhead, where there is a visitor center (open during summer) and restrooms. There’s also a shuttle stop here, for those who park elsewhere and don’t want to move their car – highly recommended, especially on the weekends.
The trail begins with a wide path along the river with a steady 400 ft ascent for 0.7 miles up to the Vernal Falls footbridge. Here, you’ll get your first view of Vernal falls in the distance with the Merced river raging underneath in the springtime.
Vernal Falls Footbridge
The footbridge has restrooms and most importantly, the last potable water source on the trail. I personally brought along 2 liters of water which was plenty for the entire trail. However, I did make sure to refill and top off here before continuing on.
From here, prepare for a long series of slippery rock steps up to the top of Vernal Falls – a 0.5 mile and 600 ft climb. The Mist Trail certainly lives up to its name – I was so glad to be wearing my waterproof hiking boots. My Lowa Renegade boots enabled me to walk through waterlogged steps (shown below) and flooded paths with no problem at all.
Top of Vernal Falls
At the top of Vernal Falls, you’ll find plenty of people lounging and relaxing on the rock slab. This is a great spot to enjoy a snack or lunch before heading back down or continuing on to Nevada Falls. There is also a pair of compost bathrooms up the trail a short ways. If you’re turning back at this point, continue along the trail by the river and turn off onto the Clark Point Trail. This leads to the John Muir Trail and has a slower (less treacherous) descent back to the Happy Isles Trailhead.
If you’re pushing onwards (highly recommended!), it’s another 1.5 miles and 900 ft in elevation gain to the top of Nevada falls. The crowd tends to thins out a bit with every stop on the Mist Trail. On this portion of the hike, I was often the only person in sight!
Top of Nevada Falls
At the top of Nevada falls, you can rest on the giant rock slabs and enjoy a snack or lunch here too. After you’ve spent some time resting and enjoying the views, continue onwards onto the John Muir Trail to start your descent.
Descent Down John Muir Trail
There’s a portion of this trail that cuts right under a small “waterfall”. Thankfully, I was prepared and wore my rain pants and rain jacket – I saw others using disposable ponchos, which seemed to do the job as well. After this section, the trail curves around and provides incredible views of the falls with Liberty Cap in the background.
The trek down John Muir Trail to Happy Isles has a more gradual descent – so it’s much easier on the knees. It’s a little longer than the route up via Mist Trail, but well worth it for the comfort and for the change of scenery. Eventually, the trail meets back up with the Mist Trail at the Vernal Falls Footbridge. Here, you can refill your water supply before continuing down to the parking lot.
Unrelated side note: I noticed that there was quite a bit of wildlife on the JMT portion of the trail, which was a pleasant surprise.
I hope this guide was helpful – please comment below with any questions or clarifications you have about this particular hike!