Vernal Falls, Yosemite Valley, CA, United States
After a half-decade long drought that dried up California and the West, the spell has been broken with an epic winter that brought record snowfall and rain to Yosemite this year. Which means there hasn’t been a better time in years to see the spectacular waterfalls for which Yosemite Mariposa County is famous.
Perhaps the area’s most picturesque of all Yosemite waterfalls is Vernal Fall (not Vernal Falls as it’s sometimes mistakenly called), which cascades 400 feet from its peak to the rocks and stream below. While not Yosemite’s tallest fall, Vernal Fall is certainly one of its strongest, widest and most photogenic falls. Not to mention, there’s simply no way to see Vernal Fall from the comfort of your car. If you want to see it, you’ll need to lace up the boots and take the Vernal Fall hike.
Fortunately, there are several hikes of varying difficulty levels that will get you to the fall. Vernal Fall is flanked by a rock staircase to help hikers more easily access the various parts of the fall and surrounding trails on foot.
The most accessible hike involves the Vernal Fall Footbridge, where you can walk to the base of Vernal Fall to experience the cascade from the lower footbridge. It really is an amazing view. Check it out in all its 360-degree virtual glory here. The hike is 1.6 miles (2.6 km) round-trip and sees a moderate elevation gain of 400 feet (120 meters) and takes around an hour and a half to complete.
Starting at Happy Isles Nature Center, opt to hike three miles (4.8 km) round-trip to see Vernal Fall or extend it to a seven-mile (11 km) hike to see Nevada Fall. This moderately difficult – but extremely popular – trail sees an elevation change of 4,000 feet (1,200 m) and takes between two and five hours, depending on how far you choose to go.
Along the way, discover why they call it the Mist Trail as you are gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) sprayed by Sierra mountain water while climbing the giant stone staircase by the fall. Rain gear is strongly advised on this trail. The best time to visit is in the spring, when falls are at their strongest, but this trail can be enjoyed nearly all times of the year.
For a moderate hike lasting five to seven hours, take the John Muir trail to the top of Vernal Fall via the cutoff at Clark Point. Or you can combine the Mist Trail and Muir trail into a circuit for a “best of both worlds” hike. Either way, this four-mile hike lets you take in views of Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall and Liberty Cap. Note: the John Muir Trail requires a permit to stay overnight in Yosemite’s wilderness. No permit is required if you are hiking it for the day. Learn more about wilderness permits here.
The 8.5-mile (13.7 km) one-way hike to the valley floor via the Mist Trail is serious business. Featuring a descent of 3,200 feet (975 meters), the Panoramic Trail begins at Panorama Trailhead in Glacier Point and ends at Happy Isles. See the majestic views from this trail – including breathtaking views of Half Dome – with panoramic 360-degree views here. You’ll also catch ample glimpses of Yosemite Falls as you descend the trail. The final portion of the hike takes you along the Merced River where you connect with the Mist Trail. Once you join the Mist Trail, you’ll pass Nevada Falls followed by Vernal Fall in the lower canyon. Despite being a downhill, 8.5-mile hike, it often takes people as long as 10 hours to complete, thanks to the views and the granite steps. This is truly a hike to take your time with and savor. The easiest way to do start this hike is by taking the Glacier Point Tour bus (fee required) one way to Glacier Point and hiking down to the valley floor.
However you get here, don’t miss the other great waterfalls in Yosemite National Park in this historic season.
Note to all hikers: the water at Vernal Fall is extremely fast-moving and almost always cold. We advise you to never enter the water anywhere along the trail or at the top of the waterfall.