There is one trailhead, and one trailhead only in Yosemite. At least, that is what you would think if you ever read anything about Yosemite, heard anything about Yosemite, or watched the hordes of people either walking or riding park shuttles to this spot. That spot, and that trailhead is, and can only be one place: Happy Isles. That is the trailhead that takes you to a number of stunning places, but most importantly, it takes you to the two most visited destinations in the park: the Mist Trail , and Half Dome. Astute readers of this blog will stop at this point and think, “Wait a minute. So-and-so said the Mist Trail was the best hike they’d ever been on. How can that be, if he just said that it’s one of the most visited trails in the park? Can that be right?”
To those astute readers, I have sad news. The Mist Trail is the most popular trail in the park, bar none.
On a hot summer day, the trail is always chock full of people just as Los Angeles freeways are always chock full of cars. I guarantee it. Even more damning (to some people), the trail is – wait for it – partially paved. Now, if these two things are deal breakers for you, read no further, but at least look at the pretty pictures I’ve attached, because the scenery is beautiful. For the rest of us, let me tell you this: yes, the Mist Trail is the most popular trail. Yes, you may be surrounded by people, and yes, that can be difficult at times. But the hike is still stunning. It is a chance to walk directly next to, and under Vernal Falls, alongside the Merced River, and to the top of the falls, where great views of Yosemite Valley, Liberty Cap, along with other portions of the park. It is the most popular trail, and hike: but it is that way for a reason. You should not not hike it just because it is popular, as this is one of those situations where the masses are right.
Directions: Well, you’re going to leave from the Happy Isles trailhead. I believe I mentioned that somewhere, but in case I didn’t, you’re going to take the Happy Isles trailhead. You can either take the free park shuttle to that location (Stop Number 16), or you can potentially find parking at Curry Village, and walk from there (if you walk from Curry Village, add an extra .75 miles distance each way, for a roundtrip distance bonus of 1.5 miles). From the trailhead, follow the paved portion uphill (believe me, you will not get lost, as you will be around many people, and there are no turnouts) for .75 miles to the bridge crossing the Merced River. From the bridge, you can see Vernal Fall, and if you’re feeling it, this is a great place to stop and watch the Merced and the waterfall.
For the hiking purists, from this point, the trail is not paved. Once you are across the bridge, you will continue to follow the trail up, and you will pass the John Muir Trail (“JMT”) junction on your right (.2 miles from the bridge). Do not take the JMT unless you are going to Nevada Falls, or other destinations that are further away, such as Mt. Whitney. Once you pass the JMT junction, you will come upon a gate for the Mist Trail that is closed in winter. This is the actual portion of the Mist trail, and from this point, you will get wet.
The last section of the trail traverses alongside the Merced River, and is right next to and under Vernal Falls. This section of trail is constantly deluged/soaked/drenched with water from the falls. Unless it is a drought year, or a part of the year where the falls are not raging, you, your gear, and everything on you, will get wet. Watch your step as you head up the 600 or so steps up the remaining .5 miles to the top of the waterfall. Once you are at the top, you will have a great view of the Merced from the edge of the waterfall. From there, you can either proceed up to Nevada Falls, and Little Yosemite Valley, or you can return back to Happy Isles the way you came.
My Tip: As this is the most popular hike in the park, and is beyond well known, I’d suggest that you do this hike during the off-season if you can. If you are in the park in late spring, fall, or early winter, you will find the trail mostly empty. Moreover, at these times, you will find that you enjoy this hike more than being stuck with hordes of people on the trail in the summer. In 2010, I hiked up the Mist Trail in late November, a week after a fresh snowfall, and had an amazing experience. As you can see from the absence of people in these photos, in those conditions, it did not look like the most popular trail in the park, but it did look like a winter wonderland.
Disclaimer: The National Park Service closes the last .5 miles of the Mist Trail in the dead of winter as it is a treacherous ascent with ice and snow. I would not recommend you proceed in these conditions as there is little to no room for error. However, if you feel like you are up to the task, bring the proper gear, know that you are on your own, and watch this video here: http://youtu.be/ybrDF3wCdMU
Other Facts: The hike is 3 miles roundtrip, plus or minus any distance you add from hiking from Curry Village or other destinations. You will gain 1,000 feet of elevation from the valley floor to the top of the falls, and you will likely have an excellent time! (http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/valleyhikes.htm)
See you on the trail!
More Information: http://www.yosemitehikes.com/yosemite-valley/mist-trail/mist-trail.htm, http://timberlinetrails.net/YosemiteMistTrail.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Happy-Isles-topo-map.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mist_Trail