Off the Trail- Under Water

The sun is hot, the sky is as blue as the underwing of a Steller’s jay, and it’s raining—raining hard.

The rain comes down in great sheets, dropping from the cloudless blue sky, catching the hot light, casting rainbows against the silver granite rock.

Somewhere up ahead, beyond the crashing river drainage below and the tall granite walls above, comes the sound of thunder.

The ground begins to shake; it feels like walking into the teeth of a storm, except the air is warm and fragrant and the sun is shining through the rainbows.

Then, just a few hundred feet away, a huge waterfall, big enough to shake the ground where it hits, big enough to send mist like rain pouring down, thunders down a sheer silver and gold rock face, dropping the full force of the snowmelt-swollen Merced River to the rocks below, where it crashes into a tumble of whitewater rapids.

The sound is overwhelming. The slippery staircase trail, the crashing white water, the fragrant smell of pine, flowers, granite, and summer cocoons hikers dwarfed like insects against the huge waterfall, most now donning raincoats and plastic bags to ward off the soaking mist.

People try to pull out cameras only to put them away quickly—there is no way to take a photo in this wet and windy world.

Grandmothers grab grandsons’ hands, and continue the steep climb up the side of the waterfall; mothers steady children; teenagers spring like deer up the granite and they climb, all of them, up, up the winding granite staircase that hugs the base of the waterfall.

This is the sublime and fantastical trail to the 318-foot sheer drop of Vernal Fall at the head of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, and it is only a two-hour drive from Mammoth Lakes.

Called the Mist Trail, much of it paved, some of it hewn out of sheer granite, it is one of the most stunning 1.5 miles anywhere.

Even the crowds that can cluster on this trail on a summer day are no obstacle; fathers, mothers, grandmothers, young girls, and old men with their cell phones pointed at the water; words and laughter filtered through the thunder in a dozen different languages but all united—for once—in awe.

Go on.

Get out there.


The hike

The trail moves from the heart of Yosemite Valley along a paved asphalt path, smooth and easy to walk, but also steep.

It is a gorgeous trail overhung by verdant green pines and sun-lit maple and mossy, thick-barked ancient oaks, hugging the silver and gold granite cliffs, the roaring Merced River crashing down to the valley floor far below.

At about 0.8 miles, the warm summer air begins to cool and you hear a faint roar.

In another few hundred feet, the roar gets louder and the air fills with cool spray even though the river and waterfall are still out of sight.

Then the trail dips slightly down to the river and wide, wooden bridge; the stopping point for some 75 percent of the people on the trail.

At the center of the bridge, the river below drops hundreds of feet over huge, house-sized boulders downstream.

Upstream, Vernal Fall comes into view; iconic and perfect.

If you want to continue, cross the bridge and continue up the path that is rougher, but still wide and well-graded.

The path now follows right beside the crashing Merced River, winding through oak and pine and big-leafed maple; a mosaic of brilliant green and indigo and turquoise and white and silver.

At about 1.2 miles from the trailhead, the huge waterfall comes into full view.

Continue hiking along the trail as it gets increasingly wet and steep. Soon, the trail begins the last ascent to the top in a series of steps carved into the granite.

The trail steepens and the mist turns to rain and it’s time to put on raingear or a plastic poncho.

By now, all but the most determined have fallen back, but many octogenarians and two-year-olds and babies in arms have made it to the top of Vernal Falls.

This is where the river spins itself into diamonds, where the ground shakes and rumbles; this is the heart of a million rainbows.

Climb the last hundred feet, the big river dropping right beside you. Cross a funky iron grate, climb to the top and emerge in a dry, hot summer world above the waterfall.

Walk to the edge. Don’t go past the metal barrier.

Look down.

Don’t go swimming in the river.


The trail

Length:0.8 miles to the bridge over the Merced River with the view of Vernal Fall; 1.2  miles to the base of Vernal Fall where you begin to get wet, 1.5 miles to the top of Vernal Fall

Difficulty:Easy (paved, smooth, wide) to intermediate (steep)

Elevation gain and loss: 500 feet from trailhead to bridge, 1,000 feet from trailhead to top of Vernal Fall

Getting there:Drive S.R. 120 West over Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park, then into Yosemite Valley. Park your car at the Curry Village parking lot, and take the free shuttle to the Happy Isles trailhead.

 Even better, take the Yosemite Area Regional Transit System bus from Mammoth, June Lake, or Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley 

( for hassle-free one-way and round-trip rides to the park every weekend in June, and every weekday beginning in July.