Vernal Falls is an amazing waterfall in Yosemite National Park. There are many amazing waterfalls in the park, but Vernal Falls was our favorite. Unfortunately, there is a fairly strenuous hike to get there. The hike runs steeply uphill for around 1.5 miles to the waterfall, which makes it a total of three tiring miles. This hike is also part of the Mist Trail and begins at shuttle stop #16. The trail also continues up to Nevada Falls.
Keep your eyes open all along this hike, because we saw a coyote run right between the shuttle stop and the bathrooms. There were also hundreds of beautiful blue Stellar’s Jays on this trail. They look exactly like cardinals, but instead of bright red, there are blue with black heads and crests. Best of all, we spotted a bear cub prying bark off of an old dead tree attempting to get at the tasty grubs inside. There were hundreds of people on this trail as it is quite busy, and it was astonishing how many of them saw nothing but the paved trail beneath their feet.
After you get off the shuttle, cross the bridge on foot. Then take an immediate turn down and right. The trail was flat along the river for about a hundred yards, and then it begins to climb steeply. When I say steeply, I mean that it is almost like climbing steps. It continues that way for the first mile and a quarter with very little change. Then you get to the actual steps! Before that happens, though, you’ll pass several important landmarks.
The first thing you come to is a large left-hand turn. This is where the trail sweeps around and leads back up the canyon. Many people stop and take a picture looking back over the valley. The trail continues to climb for a long way after that, and it is quite narrow. This can be troublesome with the amount of traffic you see on the trail. We easily passed a thousand people, and probably a lot more. There was never a time we couldn’t see at least two dozen people on the trail with us.
At the 0.8 mile mark, the trail comes to a bridge that crosses the river. If you look upstream, you can see the massive plummet of Vernal Falls. Many people stop here, take photos, and head back to the trailhead. This thought certainly crossed our minds after that steep climb, but we were determined to get to the waterfall. Even our 5 year-old was excited, though we saw only a few kids under ten or so along the way, and most of them were being carried.
Shortly after the bridge, there is a sign that splits the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail. When you get to this sign, you are very near the waterfall and you begin to hear the roar. The trail gets much shadier as it travels along the right side of the river. It may be a little less steep, too, but not much.
Shortly after passing the fork in the trail, you come to a long staircase. There is a railing and the steps are quite steep and difficult. Not only that, they begin to get wetter and wetter as you climb. Soon large puddles appear, and you have to be careful where you step. This is from the mist and spray of Vernal Falls. We loved the spray after the steep, hot climb up the mountainside.
We only climbed about half the staircase because it kept getting steeper and narrower. Still, we got a fabulous view of the waterfall. There was a sparkling rainbow across the bottom, and the water drops a vertical distance of 317 feet. It is a wide beautiful curtain, and the spray is very refreshing. Many people continued up to Nevada Falls, which is twice as tall, but also adds another 3 miles to your hike, and our 5 year-old had had enough.
If you decide to do Vernal Falls, make sure you are prepared. Sunscreen, hats, lots of water, and good hiking shoes are a must. Not only that, you’ll need plenty of time and strong calves. This hike is not for the once-annual hiker. It is probably the most difficult hike our youngest has ever done, and he’s got hundreds of hikes under his belt! This was an amazing destination, but definitely one of our hardest hikes. If you are looking for more easier family friendly hikes, check out our list.