The trail starts at the Happy Isles shuttle bus stop, with a gradual uphill walk into a narrowing canyon along the Merced River. About a quarter-mile in, there’s a second canyon that opens up to the south. We’re told that Illouette Falls can be seen at the far end, but it was dry when we hiked. It’s a 0.75-mile walk to the footbridge over the Merced River, which offers a great first view of Vernal Falls. Many people use this as a turn-around point, and many also appreciate the water fountain and restrooms on the far side of the bridge.
Cross the bridge and continue up the Mist Trail. It’s another 0.75-mile from the bridge to the top of the falls. Things quickly get steeper. We understand that the trail is aptly named—during much of the year, there’s a mist in the air, making both visibility and footing difficult. Again, in early October, the river and falls were very tame, so we didn’t have any mist-related issues.
The National Parks people say there are 600 steep stone steps to the top of the falls—but who’s counting? We can’t imagine how treacherous the climb up the ledges and granite steps would be if they were slick with moisture. Some spots were dangerous and slippery from a fine coating of dust! At the end of the steepest stretch, the trail turns left toward the top of the falls along a narrow ledge, protected by a handrail (thankfully).
At the top of Vernal Falls, there’s a railing so you can get right to the edge. There’s something hypnotic about standing there, watching the river hurtle over the edge. Take a short walk upstream to see Emerald Pool, where the river collects and settles before careening madly off the cliff, and Silver Apron, a flat rock slope where the river spreads out and slides into the pool.
If you’re feeling up to it, continue on to Nevada Falls, another mile or so up the trail.