Yosemite Valley and the Mist Trail

Bridalveil Fall from the park entrance road on a cloudy day

I first went to Yosemite back in 1976 when I was a graduate student at Stanford. I still remember being awe struck by my first view of the valley. I thought that it had to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. On that trip I tried to climb Half Dome with a friend but failed miserably. But I was totally hooked by the mountains and went back a few weeks later with my brother and succeeded in getting to the top. Half Dome was the first major mountain that I ever climbed and I have continued hiking and climbing ever since. So Yosemite Valley is a special place for me.

Sandy and I were looking at possible trips for this spring and Yosemite came up. We have been to the park together, in 2012. We did a hike to the top of North Dome, one of the highest points on the north rim of Yosemite Valley. But we were never in the valley itself. We started from the Tioga Pass road and hiked through the Yosemite high country to get to North Dome. We even had to descend quite a way from the highest point on the hike to reach North Dome, so it didn't feel like climbing a mountain. But from its top we had an enticing view down into the Valley, although we never saw the classic views of El Capitan or Half Dome or Yosemite Falls that you get from the valley floor.

Lower Yosemite Falls from the end of the trail

We found that we could get reservations at the Majestic Hotel, one of the lodges right in Yosemite Valley. It was very expensive, but since Sandy had never been to the Valley and I hadn't been there for almost twenty years, we decided to splurge and booked three nights there.

Getting there was straightforward. I was familiar with the roads. I usually go to GMT for a wargame convention twice a year and the route is 85% the same. We left early to avoid traffic going through Sacramento and reached the park late in the afternoon. We didn't have the usual spectacular view as we came into the valley. It was overcast and the cliffs were partially shrouded in mist.

But the Merced River, which the road follows on its way into the park, was very impressive. We could see that the river was way out of its normal channel. There were roaring rapids everywhere. The snowpack in the Yosemite high country was almost double that of a normal year. Combined with a warmer than usual spring, all of the rivers in the Sierra were running exceptionally high. It turned the Merced River into a raging torrent and boded well for the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley. The best time to see them is in the spring since many of them completely dry up by August. This promised to be one of the best years in decades to see Yosemite's waterfalls. We were here at a perfect time. Now all we needed was good weather.

Crossing the Merced River at Happy Isles Trailhead

The weather in the summer in the Sierras is very dependable. Aside from an occasional afternoon thunderstorm, it's generally very good. Spring is a different matter, so I had been watching the forecast as soon as we got within the ten day window of our trip. All it did was tease me. First it was good. Then it was bad. Then it was good again. It changed every single day. The morning that we left Boise, the forecast for Yosemite was "partly cloudy with a chance of rain". So the weather would either be nice or not. We were hoping for the best but packed our raingear so we were prepared for the worst.

As we drove into the park there were heavy clouds everywhere but at least it wasn't raining. A roadside turnout gave us a great view of Bridalveil Fall and it was spectacular. Photos on the web showed it as a thin stream of water, hence its name. But today there was a real torrent pouring over the rim of the valley. The waterfalls were certainly in excellent form. Now we just needed the weather to clear up.

The Mist Trail follows the Merced River

We got to The Majestic Hotel and checked in. It took me several trips to ferry all of our stuff up to our room. Each time I went by it seemed like I got a dirty look from the concierge. It seems that carrying your own bags is frowned on at a high end hotel. I guess that there aren't a lot of backpackers that stay there.

The dining room at our hotel was by reservation only and they were completely booked for the night. There were more options for eating at Yosemite Lodge but that was over a mile away. The park service tries to spread out the concessions in Yosemite Village and our hotel is set way off by itself at one end, so it is a fair distance to reach anything else. There is a free shuttle bus that runs through the valley and as we came out of our hotel one was just pulling up. We hopped on and less than ten minutes later we were at Yosemite Lodge. Hey, this is easy!

Vernal Falls comes into view

There was a food court here but when we went inside Sandy said that she didn't care for the smell. That was ok. There was a nicer restaurant next door although they said that they had a twenty five minute wait. We used the time to check out the nearby gift shop. I had to look for tshirts, of course. The wait ended up being closer to an hour but we didn't mind. We had all evening. When we did get in we had a nice glass of wine to start off our Yosemite visit. I had salmon for dinner and it was excellent and Sandy enjoyed her meal too.

We had to wait longer for a shuttle to get back to the hotel. They don't run as often in the evening. We also needed the right one. There were several routes and not all of them went to our hotel but the first bus to come was the one that we needed. I wanted to stop off at the general store to check it out so I asked the driver how long we would have to wait for another shuttle. He said that the normal loop went to all the campgrounds and took an hour, but he was just doing the short loop. He said that he would be back at the store in fifteen minutes. That seemed quick and easy so we got off at the store. After a quick look around we were back at the bus stop in ten minutes. Where we waited. And waited. And waited. After forty five minutes we decided to just walk back. But having just arrived, we didn't know our way around Yosemite Village. We only went a block before getting confused in the dark and deciding to go back to wait for the shuttle, no matter how long it took. By now Sandy was making disparaging remarks about my bright idea to make a quick stop at the general store.

View of Yosemite Falls from the Mist Trail

We were about half a block from the bus stop when we saw the shuttle pull up. We couldn't miss it, so I ran as fast as I could and reached the bus just as the last person got on. I turned and looked behind me - no Sandy. So I stood at the door and waited. The bus driver finally asked if I was getting on or not, so I explained that my wife "was right behind me". Finally Sandy appeared and we got on the bus. She had not wanted to sprint for the bus in the dark and risk falling over something. Probably wise.

As we were getting off the bus at our hotel another bus pulled in right behind us. The driver was the one from earlier in the evening, almost exactly one hour later. He had done the long loop, not the short loop like he had told me. I guess it was a good thing that it was dark and he couldn't see me flipping him off. We might need a ride from him another day.

The next morning was cloudy so there was no reason for us to rush. Sandy wanted to stop in the hotel bar where you could buy coffee and pastries in the morning. It was surprising that an expensive hotel didn't even provide breakfast. I was going to be frugal and pass on breakfast until I saw that I could get a cherry danish. I can't pass up anything with cherries in it.

After eating we caught the shuttle to the trailhead for Lower Yosemite Falls. It's a short, flat loop, only a mile long, that takes you to within a hundred yards of the base of the lower falls. That's close enough for a good view, and definitely close enough to get some spray, especially when there is so much water going over the falls. It was a spectacular sight but we had to share it with a lot of other people.

There's a reason they call it the Mist Trail

The hike to the lower falls was barely enough to get us warmed up, so we decided to try the Mist Trail next. I wasn't sure what the snow level was but figured that we could get to Vernal Falls at least. It was late morning now so there were a lot of people out. When we caught the shuttle, it was pretty much packed as full as it could get. The ride to Happy Isles Trailhead was not pleasant and we were glad when we could get off the bus and start hiking again.

After crossing the Merced River on a bridge the trail turned and followed the river, climbing steeply up a canyon that loops around behind Half Dome. The river was falling very fast through the canyon and was just a mass of white water with the high flows. After a mile we reached a bridge where we got a nice view of Vernal Falls, about half a mile away. There was a lot of water going over the falls. It was very impressive. The casual hikers turn around at the bridge but we continued.

Not far past the bridge is a trail junction. One way continues along the Merced River to the bottom and then the top of Vernal Falls. This is the Mist Trail. The other trail is actually the start of the John Muir Trail. It loops up and around to Nevada Falls. From there it is possible to drop back to Vernal Falls and complete a loop with the Mist Trail. The John Muir Trail proper continues south through Yosemite National Park and on to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, finally ending 210 miles away at the summit of Mt. Whitney. It's the most famous long distance trail in the US, and one of the most spectacular. I have always thought it unusual that neither end of the John Muir Trail is at a trailhead. Instead, the trail "starts" at some point in the backcountry. I've never wanted to do a super long-haul trail like the Pacific Crest Trail, but the John Muir Trail is still on my bucket list.

A rare calm stretch of the Merced River near Yosemite Village

I wasn't sure where the snow line was so we opted to stay on the Mist Trail. Not far past the junction was a nice view up a side canyon to Illouette Falls. It's not visible from anywhere in the valley. You can only see it from this trail or from high country trails that start from the Glacier Point road.

We continued and got closer to Vernal Falls. There was a long stretch where the trail was carved out of solid granite. From the trail, steep slabs sloped down to the river. If you slipped there would be no way to prevent yourself from going into the river. It was a real possibility, since we were walking on smooth rock slabs that were wet and slippery from the spray of the falls. There was a lot of traffic going both ways so we were constantly passing other hikers. I trust my own judgement but even I get nervous when there are so many other people. I was surprised to see how many people took very young children on this trail.

Yosemite Falls and Merced River on our walk back to the hotel

In fact, as I write this several weeks later, I just read that a few days ago there was a hiker who fell into the river from the Mist Trail. He still hasn't been found and is presumed to have drowned. The risk is very real and you have to be careful.

As we got very close to the falls the trail turned a corner and climbed a series of stone steps. Here the Mist Trail really lived up to its name. Heavy spray from the falls was drifting to the side and over the trail.

And all over us. Even with our rain gear on, we were quickly getting very wet. We could see that the people who were passing us as they came down were completely drenched. Maybe it would be refreshing on a hot and sunny summer day, but today was cool and cloudy. It didn't seem like it would be fun to be soaking wet on the hike down and then the crowded shuttle ride back to our hotel. We wimped out and decided to head back down.

Sandy enjoying her burger after surviving a squirrel attack

Since we hadn't hiked that far today we opted to pass on getting packed into a shuttle bus and walked back instead. First we checked out Half Dome Village, an area of cabins and tents that is a "slightly" cheaper place to stay than our hotel. It didn't appeal to Sandy though. There was a nice mountain shop there and Sandy found a pair of hiking slacks and a jacket that she really liked.

Unfortunately we didn't find a place that we wanted to eat so we walked back to the General Store to check out a food place there. It was crowded of course, like every other place in Yosemite Valley, but we did manage to find an empty table. Sandy had a burger and I got a hot dog. There was a minor crisis when Sandy was being attacked by a squirrel who wanted her burger but I bravely chased it away and saved her (and her hamburger). The squirrels were quite agressive there trying to get food. We sure could have used Abby there. She would have kept all of the squirrels away.

After eating we got a bottle of wine at the General Store and headed back to our room for the evening. The forecast for the next day looked better, so we optimistic about getting a really good hike in.