The lower of the two steps that make up the Giant Staircase, Vernal Falls via the Mist Trail explores a stretch of the Merced River Canyon as it rises off of the valley floor and up to the top of Vernal Falls. The hike is a nice there-and-back option if you are limited on time or are interested in a warm-up prior to setting out on a higher elevation hike such as Glacier Point via the 4-Mile Trail and Yosemite Falls Trail.
The trail begins at Happy Isles Trailhead, which is also the start of the famous John Muir Trail. Follow the JMT along the north bank of the Merced River as it winds through the forest of black oak, incense cedar, and ponderosa pine and passes the occasional house-sized granite boulder. The trail begins a gradual rise up the canyon toward Vernal Falls Bridge, where the first views of the 317-foot waterfall appear. The junction with the Mist Trail is just a few hundred yards past the Vernal Falls Bridge. Leave the JMT and follow the Mist Trail toward the base of Vernal Falls, where you begin your ascent up a steep granite staircase. The Mist Trail is named for this section; during high flow months expect a thundering volume of water and a healthy dose of spray as you climb, and don’t forget your rain jacket!
As you continue up the granite staircase you’ll have full, front-and-center views of Vernal Falls. There are plenty of stairs and ledges on which to rest and enjoy the view. With the final push up a narrow, rocky staircase, the trail tops out on an open granite slab above Vernal Falls. Congratulate yourself, as you have just ascended the first step of the Giant Staircase. Soak in the views and explore the calmer waters of Emerald Pool and the Silver Apron area, but heed signs warning against swimming in this area. Unwitting swimmers have been sucked over the waterfall’s edge.
Return using the same path or continue up the Mist Trail toward the second step of the Giant Staircase and Nevada Falls for the Giant Staircase to JMT Loop.
Note: This is a popular trail that many Yosemite visitors use during their exploration of the park. Set out early to get in front of the crowd and/or consider a visit in the quieter fall season.