Take A Trail Up To Beautiful Waterfall Views At This Popular West Coast National Park

The deeper you venture into Yosemite National Park, the more you may appreciate why this is one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S. Even just driving through Yosemite Valley can yield some amazing, in-your-face views of landmarks like the 3,000-foot vertical rock formation, El Capitan. From the Valley View stop-off along Northside Drive, you can also see El Capitan juxtaposed with the 620-foot waterfall, Bridalveil Fall. However, as lovely as these sights are, there are many hidden marvels that you can't see from the road in Yosemite National Park.

As it happens, Yosemite is second only to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the number of trails it offers hikers (278). It's along these trails that you'll encounter some of the park's most spectacular sights. One trail that's among the most popular — and not without good reason, thanks to its views — is the Mist Trail leading up to the 317-foot Vernal Fall.

The trail takes its name from the mist rolling off the powerful waterfall onto the path as you make your way up to the top. It will take you along the Merced River, across the Vernal Fall Footbridge, and up a steep incline of over 600 steps, carved out of granite. You can stop at the footbridge if you're not able to ascend the rock staircase, but should you go forward, it's not uncommon to see fellow hikers in ponchos or wet T-shirts, looking like they've just disembarked a river raft ride at an amusement park.

How to reach the Vernal Fall Footbridge

The trailhead for Vernal Fall is at the Happy Isles Art and Nature Center in Yosemite National Park. You can reach the nature center via stop #16 on the free shuttle bus from Curry Village (where there is public parking). Or you can get a head start on your hike and make the 25-minute walk between places. At the nature center, the Mist Trail begins in the same spot as the John Muir Trail, but after the Vernal Fall Footbridge, the two trails diverge, with the latter giving you a view of the raging waterfall from a different angle. The John Muir Trail is a good option to keep in mind if you plan on hiking to Vernal Fall in the winter, when the slick rock stairs next to it ice over and are closed for safety reasons.

While the waterfall itself runs all year long, the flow of it varies depending on the season, peaking in late spring and early summer as the ice thaws. This is generally considered the optimal viewing time for Vernal Fall — and its name even suggests that, since vernal denotes "spring."

It's only about a mile from the trailhead to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, and going by the National Park Service, the difficulty level of this part of the hike is moderate. From the bridge, you'll see the white water cascading down over the rocks, and the river cutting through the mountains, back the way you came.

The Mist Trail at Yosemite National Park

The Vernal Fall Footbridge is undeniably scenic, and a 30-to-45-minute hike to it might be enough for some people to feel happy and turn back. Others can use the bridge as a way station since there are restrooms and it's the last chance along the trail to refill your bottles with drinking water (from May to October only). However, for an up-close view of Vernal Fall, you'll eventually want to keep going and begin nature's granite StairMaster climb up the Mist Trail.

The upper part of the trail is full of water spray, and it sometimes glistens with rainbows, but it's also a strenuous hike that's not for the faint of heart. Fatal accidents have been known to happen in this area, so you should move uphill with caution. Don't climb over the guardrail to take pictures, and don't underestimate how easy it could be to slip, even in shoes with a good grip, as you squeeze past other hikers and climb the narrow rock stairway to the top of Vernal Fall.

At the top, one corner of the viewing platform looks down right over the waterfall and the river's twisting path through evergreen trees. It's an awe-inspiring sight that will reward you and your legs before you begin the second half of your three-hour round trip. If you're not ready for the hike to end, the algae-tinted Emerald Pool and a second waterfall, Nevada Fall, can be reached higher up the trail.