The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls (Summer)

The start of the "Mist Trail" proper

So, you’ve been warned. Not just by me, but by every guide book, blog, friends, and family. You’ve heard the horror stories. You’ve listened to the not-so-dire-warnings. For whatever reason, you really, really want to do the Mist Trail in the summer. I could tell you tales that would curdle your blood, that a majority of park service rescues occur on the Mist Trail in the summertime, or that the majority of deaths that occur in the park occur on this section of the trail (mostly from people falling over the falls), or that hungry bears regularly carry off unsuspecting tourists from the trail and eat them to fatten up for the winter, and you’d still want to do the Mist Trail in the summer. 

And you know what? I’m not going to tell you not to. There’s plenty of reasons why you want to do it in the summer. First, the best time to see the fall is right after the snow melts, when it seems like there is more water in the Merced River than it can possibly accommodate. Second, summertime is vacation time, and any time you’re on vacation, it’s the time to have an adventure, regardless of whole else is there. Third, like it or not, Happy Isles/the Mist Trail/the beginning of the John Muir Trail is the gateway to many backpacking and multi-day adventures. And fourth, why the heck not – it’s there!


Directions: Same as the last two posts. (

 Vernal Falls, 2002

Tips: The best tip I can give you is to get an early start. Even then, you won’t beat the crowds. You will, however, beat the hordes. If you are heading up the trail around 10:00 a.m. through 3:00 p.m., expect to be backpack-to-backpack the whole way with other people. The other reason to get a good start: you will avoid being caught out in a late-afternoon thunderstorm.

The next best tip I can give you is to wear solid shoes. Yes, the stairs of the Mist Trail can be traversed in bare feet, thong sandals, Chaco’s, tevas, high heels, and completely destroyed sneakers. But, just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you have to. In the summertime, the trail is completely covered with water, which makes the granite slick, and your footing uncertain. In many spots, should you slip, you will experience a near fatal to fatal fall, even though the terrain is not that daunting. I say: why risk it? Wear something you’ll be comfortable in, and something that you can trust. Furthermore, as the trail is crowded, you will be forced into weird positions as people run past you, or descend in front of you. You’re better off with something that will keep your footing secure, and your feet happy.

Additionally, if you want to be happy, insulate your gear properly whether you’re backpacking or daypacking. The last thing you want is a completely ruined camera or cell phone, or a completely soaked sleeping bag on the first night of your trip. Along with insulating your gear, bring a good coat should you not want to be completely soaked on the ascent and descent. Then again, if it’s a blazing hot day, don’t bring a coat, it’ll feel great to be naturally cooled!

Vernal Falls, 2007 

As my final tip, I will say this: watch out for rodents. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other small woodland creatures know the Mist Trail almost as well as people do. Should you leave your bag unattended at the top of the falls, or at certain other spots on the trail, you will likely find that you have picked up a furry hitchhiker, who will either jump out of your bag, giving you heart palpitations, poo in your bag (nasty), or chew their way out of your bag. Avoid this problem by watching your surroundings, and not feeding the animals.

Things Not To Do: There’s probably plenty, but I’ll stick to the one that is guaranteed to end your life. At the top of Vernal Falls, there is a fence that is at the end of the granite and anywhere between no inches and two feet from the top of the waterfall, depending on the water flow. The fence extends back up the river a fair ways, and then stops. Do not, under any circumstances climb over the fence. Let me make this even more clear: do not climb over this fence if you want to live. This isn’t just me telling you this – there are NPS signs all over the fence warning you. This isn’t just NPS telling you this either, this is your common sense speaking. When you are at the top of the falls, you can see for yourself: this is a several hundred foot drop. The waterfall is right there. The river is flowing rapidly. Should you step over that fence, you know that you will likely be dead. It is not worth the risk in any way. I don’t care how hot it is, how much fun it looks, how daring you are, how lucky you are, how funny it is, it’s just not worth it. I used to warn/lecture people when I worked there, and I still do (in an unofficial capacity now, kind of lame, I know). Don’t take it from me though: there’s plenty of stories this year about people who didn’t make it: ( So, out of all the things you should not do: don’t do that.

 Vernal Falls Single Rainbow

Other than that lecture, have a great time, and see you on the trail!