Tucked in the far reaches of the east end of Yosemite Valley, deep in the Merced River Canyon sits two beautiful waterfalls; Vernal and Nevada. Nevada Fall drops 594 feet, and Vernal 317 feet. Powerful and turbulent, these two waterfalls will soak you in spring and entice you year-round. There is something for everyone; you choose how far you want to hike on this popular trail and you're sure to be rewarded with wonderful views no matter what.
Vernal and Nevada Falls are part of the Merced River. Its canyon, often described as the “Giant Staircase,” extends 21 miles from the Sierra Crest to the Merced River basin. The basin contains 67 high country lakes and drains an area of 118 square miles. It is best seen from Glacier Point, the master joints controlling the positions of the two falls are at right angles to each other. At each step there is a narrowing of the canyon at the riser and a shallow basin scooped out of the tread behind it. Nevada and Vernal Fall are the last two steps.
Vernal Fall Footbridge Distance: 1.6 mi (2.6 km) round trip Elevation gain: 400 ft (120 m) Difficulty: Moderate Time: 1-1.5 hours
Top of Vernal Fall Distance: 2.4 mi (3.9 km) round trip (via Mist Trail) Elevation gain: 1000 ft (300 m) Difficulty: Strenuous Time: 3 hours
Top of Nevada Fall Distance: 5.4 mi (8.7 km) round trip (via Mist Trail) Elevation gain: 2000 ft (610 m) Difficulty: Strenuous Time: 5-6 hours
Stay on the established trail: do not swim or wade in the river and do not walk along the edge of the river.
Observe warning signs and railings—these exist for your safety.
Carry a head lamp (with fresh or extra batteries) in case you end up hiking more slowly or farther then planned and find yourself hiking back in the dark.
Sprained ankles and knee injuries are common on this trail. There are many areas of loose rock/decomposed granite, mixed with steep steps, and water, which makes for slippery footing in places.
Avoid becoming dehydrated or experiencing heat exhaustion. Drink plenty and drink often; pace yourself; rest in the shade; and eat salty snacks.
The granite steps along the Mist Trail leading up to the brink of Vernal Fall can be slick and crowded. Consider making a loop by continuing on the trail, past the brink of Vernal Fall and Emerald Pool, taking the cutoff trail to Clark Point, and then hiking down the John Muir Trail.
A Step Back in Time
This trail is a historic one. As you hike up to enjoy the view of the water, imagine the changes that have occurred here, not just geologically over time, but socially as well. Early on people had to pay a toll to hike this trail, and tollhouses were in place in various areas. There was a livery stable and other outbuildings, as well as a blacksmith shop to help with any needs weary horseback travelers might encounter. The popular Mist Trail with stairs cut into the granite walls, once had rickety wood ladders as the only access point to the top of the waterfall (for the final 30 feet). Eventually these were replaced with stone steps…and later an added railing.
Upon reaching the top of Vernal Fall in 1870, Joseph LeConte said,
“…Oh! The glory of the view! The emerald green and snowy white of the falling water; the dizzying leap into the yawning chasm; the roar, and foam, and spray of the deadly struggle with rocks below; the deep green of the sombre pines, and the exquisite, fresh and lively green of grass, ferns and moss, wet with eternal spray; the perpendicular, rocky walls, rising far above us toward the blue, arching sky. As I stood there, gazing down into the dark and roaring chasm, and up into the clear sky, my heart swelled with gratitude to the Great Author of all beauty and grandeur…”