Upon first viewing Yosemite’s Giant Staircase, one can imagine how this section of the Merced River Canyon got its name. The Giant Staircase refers to a pair of immense granite steps that create a 2,000-foot drop between Little Yosemite Valley and the main Yosemite Valley floor. Adding to this dramatic landscape, the Merced River plummets over the ledges and creates two spectacular waterfalls: the lower 317-foot Vernal Fall and upper 594-foot Nevada Fall.
The Giant Staircase loop begins at Happy Isles Trailhead, which is also the northern starting point of the famous, 210-mile John Muir Trail (JMT). The Mist Trail splits off from the JMT slightly past the Vernal Fall Bridge, climbing a steep granite staircase adjacent to the waterfall. This area gets drenched in the spring and early summer at high water flows. If you hike here in the spring, be sure to bring your rain jacket.
Once you reach the top of Vernal Falls you’ll have ascended the first step of the Giant Staircase. Continue up the Mist Trail and begin the second climb as it switchbacks up a steep gully to the left of Nevada Falls. At the top of the gully the Mist Trail ends at junction with the JMT. A few hundred yards to the right is the top of Nevada Falls, the highest point on the loop and the summit of the second step of the Giant Staircase. Enjoy a rest and the scenery, but be watchful of your food if you stop for lunch as the local critters are anything but shy.
Follow the JMT on the return trip for spectacular views of the southeast face of Half Dome, Mount Broderick, and Liberty Cap towering above Nevada Falls. If you are hiking in the fall, take care not slip on ice in shaded areas. Follow the JMT back to your beginning at Happy Isle Trailhead.
Note: The lower section of the trail up to Vernal Falls is very popular with Yosemite visitors. Set out early to get in front of the crowd and/or consider a visit in the quieter fall season.