Following our early morning, final commute from Oakhurst, California to a damp and misty Yosemite Valley, Mel and I park the car at the massive, main parking area near Yosemite Village, make an ill planned walk through very long, wet grass and mercifully find and board the free shuttle bus at Stop 12 which delivers us to Stop 16 at 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 trailhead is also the beginning of the John Muir Trail. Some documentation can be confusing.
A sobering notice, on a post at the trailhead, tells of an attractive young man and woman who were taken over the precipice of Vernal Fall in July. Sadly, their bodies have not yet been recovered. We are here in mid-September. It has been a bad year for serious injury and fatality in Yosemite National Park.
My photographs 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. Today , it is predictably very crowded. The Mist Trail is initially through forest and huge boulders on paved trail next to the rushing Merced River on our right.
We hike 0.8 miles (1.3 KM) then cross the Vernal Fall Bridge over the Merced River. It is a beautiful place with water, 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.
We continue uphill, pass 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 also nurtures vertical gardens and large patches of moss on rock walls. The musty, natural odour 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 us wet and photography with a clear lens is a challenging achievement.
The final approach to the brink of Vernal Fall is via a steep, narrow, slippery, fenced corridor against the granite rock face, up and onto large 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. It is crowded. 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. Mel and I will continue up to the top of Nevada Falls. While we relax here and enjoy the sound of rushing water, the amazing views and the whisper of the breeze through trees, my mind wanders and I cannot help but ponder the lives of young people lost and not yet recovered. I know nothing 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 at least twice 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. We, 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. It is an incredibly beautiful place.
To return to Yosemite Valley from Vernal Fall, it is wise to avoid hiking down the wet granite steps used for ascent. It is easier to climb up something than it is to climb down. The potential for injury 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. Mel and I will hike from Vernal Fall to the top of Nevada Fall, 1.5 miles (2.4 KM) and 900 vertical ft (274 m) above Vernal Fall.