Tragedy at Vernal Fall on Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, California, USA.
Following the final early morning commute from Oakhurst, California into a damp and misty Yosemite Valley, the car is parked at the massive, main parking area near Yosemite Village, before making an ill- planned approach through very long, wet grass to mercifully find and board the free shuttle bus at Stop 12 which delivers us to Stop 16 near the Happy Isles Nature Center.
The Mist Trail begins on the other side of a short walk across the stone bridge over the rushing and very beautiful Merced River. Note: This trail-head is also the beginning of the John Muir Trail.
A sobering notice, on the trail-head post, informs of the disappearance of an attractive young man and woman who were taken over the precipice of Vernal Fall in July. Sadly, their bodies have not been recovered.
This year has been a bad one for serious injury and fatality in Yosemite National Park. Photographs in this post are timed and positioned to give the appearance of quiet tranquility. In reality, this busy trail is arguably the most popular trail in the park and today the Mist Trail is predictably very crowded.
The Mist Trail is initially through forest and huge boulders on paved trail next to the rushing Merced River to the right.
After hiking ¾ of a mile (1.3 KM) the Vernal Fall Bridge crosses the Merced River. The bridge crossing is a beautiful place with drinking water, washroom facilities and a tantalizing view of Vernal Fall a significant distance upstream. Mount Broderick 6,706 ft (2,044 m) and Liberty Cap 7,076 ft (2,157 m) loom large above the approach to Vernal Fall.
The hike continues uphill past the junction of the Mist Trail with the John Muir Trail on the south side of Merced River where trail was once paved but is now returning to its natural state. The John Muir Trail continues south for 212 miles (339.2 KM) to end at the summit of Mount Whitney.
The Mist Trail continues up a series of steep and irregular granite steps rendered wet and slippery by mist from the 80 ft (24.4 m) wide Vernal Fall plunging 307 ft (93.6 m) onto enormous boulders at the bottom where rainbows dance in the sun.
The dense mist nurtures vertical gardens and large patches of moss on rock walls where the musty, natural odor is intoxicating, fresh and pungent. Earlier in the summer, rain gear would be mandatory to avoid getting soaked. In mid-September, waterfall flow generates enough mist to get a bit wet and photography with a clear lens is a challenging achievement.
The final approach to the brink of Vernal Fall occurs via a steep, narrow, slippery, fenced corridor against the granite rock face, up and onto large, smooth granite slabs that taper down to the top of Vernal Fall. There are warning signs and a protective railing at the top of the waterfall.
There is time to relax and take refreshment in the sun while stretched out on the granite slab.
The round trip hike to Vernal Fall is 3 miles (4.8 KM) with challenging elevation gain of 1,000 ft (305 m) on slippery, uneven steps. The trail continues to the top of Nevada Falls. Relaxing here and enjoying the sound of rushing water, the amazing views and the whisper of the breeze through trees causes the mind to wander to ponder the lives of young people lost and not yet recovered even though nothing is known of the specific circumstances.
In July, the water volume over this Vernal Fall step in the 'Giant Staircase' of Merced Canyon would likely have been significantly greater than what it is today.
The rocks in the basin above the abyss would have been covered with water. The surface would have been deceptively calm, camouflaging the powerful current beneath. The hot day and tired feet would have made it tempting to disregard the warnings and enjoy a refreshing dip in the cold, chameleon water.
The water-worn, smooth, slippery granite would provide nothing to grab. In one moment of joyful abandon, followed by brief terror, there can be no recovery. It is a seemingly innocuous decision with potentially catastrophic consequence. The tragedy was likely swift and certain.
Those who follow are reminded to learn and stay safe. My heart goes out to their friends and families. I know what it is to live on the edge. Personally, I would have it no other way. There, but for the grace of God, go I. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful place.
To return to Yosemite Valley from Vernal Fall, it is wise to avoid hiking down the wet granite steps used for ascent because they are crowded, wet and dangerous. It is easier to climb up something than it is to climb down. The potential for injury (risk) will be reduced by hiking a short distance further east past Emerald Pool to turn right from the Mist Trail onto the Clark Trail and right again onto the John Muir Trail for return via the Vernal Fall Bridge to the Mist Trailhead in Yosemite Valley near Shuttle Bus Stop # 16.