Yosemite: Mist Trail
If you do just one hike in Yosemite, make it The Mist Trail! This hike, which leads to Vernal and Nevada Falls, was our one must-do hike on our recent trip to Yosemite. The Mist Trail in Yosemite is a demanding hike, but it is SO worth it! It begins on the valley floor and ascends 2,000 feet to the top of Nevada Falls. The views of Yosemite Valley from the Mist Trail are amazing from the first bridge overlook, to ascending the granite stairs next to Vernal Falls through a cloud of mist, to the grand views from the top of the falls.
The Mist Trail provides access to several Yosemite hikes: Vernal Falls only (3 miles), Nevada Falls (8 miles), Half Dome (14 miles). I have done all 3 at separate times. The Mist Trail to the top of both Vernal and Nevada Falls is doable for kids, but getting to the top of Nevada Falls definitely pushed my 11-year-old to his limit (both mentally and physically).
Hiking the Mist Trail: What You Need to Know
- Mileage: 8-9 miles to the top of Nevada Falls, depending on whether you take the John Muir Trail or winter routes back down.
- Elevation: 2,000’ gain
- Difficulty: Hard
- No dogs; No strollers
- Restrooms: Yes
- Location: trailhead begins at Happy Isles
Best Time to Hike The Mist Trail
Spring is a spectacular time to hike the Mist Trail because the falls are at their fullest due to peak runoff. However, if you go in early spring be prepared for snow along the trail. While we came across minimal snow on the trail and were able to hike to the top of Nevada Falls without any issue, according to reviews posted just a few days before we hiked on April 1st, some hikers had to turn around due to snow on the trail. The later in spring you go, the less of an issue this is. It was also unseasonably warm the week we were there, but the following week they were expecting more snow. So plan ahead and be prepared for warm or cold weather.
Summer – Warm weather, clear trails, longer daylight hours, strong water flow, but more crowded on the trails & harder to find parking.
Fall – Cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, fall colors, but less impressive water flow.
Winter – Cold, much more difficult hiking conditions, must take the Winter Trail which bypasses Vernal Falls. This is the one season I would skip this trail.
Where to Park for the Mist Trail
We parked at the day-use Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking Lot off Happy Isles Loop between Curry Village and Upper Pines Campground. It’s a large lot and there was plenty of parking available when we arrived at 9am in early April. When we left around 2pm the road to the lot was closed to traffic. So arrive early if you want to use this lot for Nevada and Vernal Falls parking. The trailhead is approximately .5 miles from the parking lot.
Alternatively, you can take the Yosemite Valley shuttle to stop 16 (Happy Isles) or if you are camping nearby you can walk directly to the trailhead.
Yosemite Mist Trail Map
The trail map below shows the many different options for hiking to Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail.
The Mist Trail
We parked at the Yellow Star “A” and began our hike from there. We followed the RED arrows which represent the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls (C) and then to Nevada Falls (D). We turned around at Nevada Falls and retraced our steps back along the Mist Trail.
Alternate Hiking Options
Mist Trail to Nevada Falls Return via John Muir Trail
You can also follow the Mist Trail RED to Nevada Falls as we did and then return via the John Muir Trail in PURPLE. This adds a little bit of mileage but offers beautiful views of Nevada Falls from a different perspective as well as other Yosemite Valley views. It also bypasses the strenuous granite steps along the Mist Trail (which are harder going down than they are coming up – Trust me!).
Mist Trail to Nevada Falls Return via Mist Trail & take shortcut to John Muir Trail
Another option is to follow the Mist Trail RED to Nevada Falls and begin your descent via the Mist Trail, but take the Vernal Falls bypass route GREEN to the John Muir Trail PURPLE. We considered this option on our way down. My quads were screaming at me by the time we reached the turnoff for the bypass and I was all for skipping the granite steps next to Vernal Falls, but my 11yo wanted to see the falls again so we stuck with the Mist Trail.
Mist Trail Winter Route
In Winter, your only option is to take the John Muir Trail PURPLE (From the Mist Trail turn right at “F”) and take it as far as Clark Point (“E”) GREEN before joining the Mist Trail RED to Nevada Falls and returning the same way.
Mist Trail to Vernal Falls
Parking Lot to Trailhead
From the parking lot, we walked half a mile to the trailhead. We stopped at the restrooms at Happy Isles (the last ones that were open until we reached the top of Nevada Falls – there were 2 others that we saw along the way, but both were closed). Just before we reached the official trailhead we crossed over the Merced River where we paused, enjoyed the view, and gave ourselves a little pep talk for the climb ahead.
The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls begins just past the bridge where we made a sharp right onto the trail. The sign clearly says “no dogs” although you’d be surprised by how many dogs we actually saw on the trail – some were walking others were being carried by their owners!
Trailhead to Vernal Falls Footbridge
Just past the trailhead, the trail quickly begins to climb and we watched the Merced River disappear below us. The first part of the Vernal Falls hike is a graded path that varies between granite and crushed gravel. It was steep and essentially straight up until we reached the Vernal Falls footbridge. We stopped a couple of times along this section to catch our breath and drink water. I tend to want to power through, but this is a long difficult hike, so I recommend stopping every so often, especially if you’re hiking with kids.
It felt like a huge milestone to get to the Vernal Falls footbridge, but in reality we were only a fraction of the way there. The footbridge is about .8 miles past the trailhead. This is a great place to take a break if you haven’t already and get a glimpse of Vernal Falls in the distance. There are restrooms and a water fountain here (although they were both closed when we were there).
Vernal Falls Footbridge to the top of Nevada Falls
About a quarter of a mile past the footbridge, you will see the John Muir Trail on your right. Not far beyond this junction, the Vernal Falls stairs begin! It doesn’t start off too steep, but just wait! To the right, there are steep granite cliffs and to the left the Merced River
From this point to the top of Vernal Falls is the most precarious part of the Mist Trail. There are some sections of the trail with a guard rail and other sections without. The stairs can be wet and slick from all the mist and/or melting snow. I was especially cautious hiking with a kid (some call me “The Fun Killer”), but I saw others standing off the trail on ledges or speeding up & down the stairs which made me SO nervous. Trust me, the view from the trail is spectacular and your pictures will still be epic!
There are some sections of the trail that are so steep we felt like we were climbing up a ladder. Yes, the trail really is as steep as it looks below!
This is the last section of the trail before reaching the top of Vernal Falls. It is narrow and water was dripping down on us from the rocks overhead. On the way up, we waited for everyone to come down before we went. On our way down there were so many more people and everyone went at once making it quite tight. Thank goodness for those handrails!
The Top of Vernal Falls Yosemite
At the top, there is a ton of space to sit and picnic and enjoy the view of the river before it heads over the falls. There is a small overlook at the edge of the falls – we crept over there briefly to look down (don’t worry – there are handrails!) but mostly we enjoyed it from a safe distance away!
- Elevation: 3,327 feet
- Vernal Falls Height: 318 feet
- Trailhead to top of Vernal Falls Hike Distance: 1.5 miles
Mist Trail to Nevada Falls
Many people turn around at the top of Vernal Falls, but we decided to keep going up the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls. From this bridge, we watched the water from the Merced River rushing down and emptying into a large Emerald Pool which eventually goes over Vernal Falls. The pool looks so serene and there are many signs warning people not to swim in it!
The first part of the hike to Nevada Falls is not strenuous at all – almost deceivingly so! After a short while, Nevada Falls comes into view. This part of the Nevada Falls hike does not follow as closely to the edge as or mist the trail like near Vernal Falls.
Eventually, the trail switches to more steps. This part of the trail is fairly exposed and it was getting a lot warmer. Both my son and I started to feel a little bit dizzy winding up the steps and ended up stopping a little more often.
These switchbacks were the last push to the top.
The Top of Nevada Falls
The last bit of the trail to Nevada Falls is flat. It was the best feeling to reach the top and see the bridge over the falls.
There are lots of places to spread out and relax at the top of Nevada Falls. We ate our lunch on this wide area of rock overlooking Nevada Falls and Yosemite Valley. It was so nice to enjoy the view and rest up before heading back down!
This is the toughest hike my 11-year-old had ever done. It’s difficult – even for adults. But I think a difficult hike makes the view and reward of making it to the top that much better! There was a fair amount of complaining about this hike by my hiking partner when it got tough, but once we reached the top he exclaimed that it was worth all the work to get there. He also suggested next time we go all the way to Half Dome! I’m all for it. This is one of my favorite hikes ever and I would love to come back again with my teens. My son & I both rated this hike 10/10.
What to Pack for the Mist Trail
We came prepared with a lot of clothing choices as it was spring so the weather was unpredictable. It was unseasonably warm during the days, but the nights & mornings were still quite cool.
- Snacks! We brought lots of snacks & lunch (granola bars, trail mix, sandwiches, fruit)
- Backpack & Water Bladder – Mike & I almost always carry our Camelbaks and when we go on long hikes we make the kids carry them too. I recommend at least 1.5 liter bladder for kids and 2 liters for adults.
- Essentials: First Aid kit, Compass, Map (paper or an app like Alltrails), Flashlight/Headlamps
- Hiking Poles – We don’t have any, and the Mist Trail was the first time I wished I had some!
- Base Layer: Since we knew it would be hot, we hiked with a short sleeve shirt for my 11yo and a lycra/nylon tank for me
- Then as needed, we added a non-cotton long-sleeve shirt
- Insulated jacket (we love these Nano Puff jackets from Patagonia) – we ended up leaving these in the car as it was already getting warm.
- Rain/waterproof jacket (we brought these to keep us dry as we hiked past Vernal Falls. We got misted, but not wet so I think we would have stayed perfectly dry & warm with just a fleece). I bought the Rainwall jacket from REI for my son right before our trip
- Hiking pants – we have a variety from Columbia, REI & Prana
- Hat: baseball hat, warm beanie (for cooler weather)
- Hiking boots – A good pair of hiking boots is key. In spring the rocky trails can be wet & slippery or even covered in snow. Good traction and a waterproof/resistant material are key to keep from slipping and feet from getting cold/wet. We both hiked in Merrell. I’ve had mine for over 5 years and am due for a new pair because the traction is wearing. My son’s new Merrell Moabs stood up to the test of him walking through running water & deep puddles.
- Wool socks