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Yosemite National Park: Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the John Muir Trail

When it comes to Yosemite Valley, waterfalls are the name of the game.  The valley is home to some of the most recognizable waterfalls in the world including Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, and Horsetail Falls which became a media sensation in February 2016 for appearing ‘on fire’ as it spilled over the side of El Capitan. Two other well-known waterfalls in Yosemite National Park are Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. At 317 feet and 594 feet respectively, these are two of the most impressive falls in the National Park System.  Both can be reached on a popular day hike from Yosemite Valley along the Mist and John Muir Trails.

Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the John Muir Trail - Yosemite National Park
Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the John Muir Trail – Yosemite National Park

Hiking to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls offers something for everyone. Families and those looking for a shorter hike out of the valley floor can plan a less-strenuous, out-and-back route to the first falls and back. Those looking for a longer loop route using both the Mist and John Muir Trails.  And for the very, very adventurous, a hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls can be the gateway to a trip up Yosemite’s famous Half Dome.

Climbing the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls
Climbing the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls

Planning Your Visit to the Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Trail

The Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Trails begin at the Happy Isles trailhead.  It’s available by taking the Yosemite Valley shuttle bus to stop #16. As you will quickly learn on any trip to Yosemite, using the park-provided transportation system is a must.  Spending an hour looking for a parking spot or stuck in a long line of traffic is one of the quickest ways to start your hike off on the wrong foot. It’s much better to hop off the shuttle and head straight to the Merced River.

Merced River - Yosemite National Park
Merced River – Yosemite National Park

As mentioned earlier, there are three options to hike the Falls:

Option 1: 

Take the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, climb the stone stairs to the top of the falls and return back on the same trail.  The distance to the footbridge and bottom of the falls is roughly 0.8 miles with about 400 feet of elevation gain.  The Mist Trail then heads upwards to the top of the falls via roughly 600 stone steps.  They don’t call it the Mist Trail without good reason. Depending on the season, the hike to Vernal Falls may leave hikers covered in spray.  Watch your camera equipment too.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park
Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

Option 2:  Continue on the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls and return back on the same trail.  The total distance round trip now moves to 5.4 miles on the out-and-back trail. The hike is strenuous with a gain in elevation of 2000 feet from the valley floor.  Just beyond Vernal Falls the trail opens up to the Emerald Pool, a shallow pool in the Merced which is famous for its deep green color.  The green tint is caused by algae that live on the granite.  A few folks (illegally) make use of the rocks and pool in the summer for swimming. Given the slippery rocks and dangerous currents it is banned by the Park Service and definitely not worth the risk.

Top of Nevada Falls - Merced River flowing to Yosemite Valley
Top of Nevada Falls – Merced River flowing to Yosemite Valley

Once you reach the top of Nevada Falls plan to rest for a while. Your legs and lungs will need the break.  There are plenty of places to sit on the rocks although shade can be tough to find in the summer months.  Stay on the marked areas though, several hikers every year are killed or injured from slipping on the wet granite and going over the Falls. Once you’re rested, turn around and head back down the Mist Trail the way you arrived.

Nevada Falls - Yosemite National Park
Nevada Falls – Yosemite National Park

Option 3 (Park Chasers Recommended!): 

Walk 0.2 miles to the next junction beyond Nevada Falls to the John Muir Trail and return back to Yosemite Valley on this world-famous trail.  The total distance expands to 6.4 miles, but also becomes a loop trail instead of out-and-back, and has the benefit of some stunning views looking back up towards Nevada Falls from the other side.  The trail can be a more difficult descent, especially with legs that are a little wobbly from the trip up.  Go slowly, allow more speedy hikers to pass by you in the narrow sections, and be sure to turn around regularly to enjoy Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and the Falls. Round trip the hike takes about 6 hours.

Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Hiking Map - from nps.gov - Download the full map at : https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/halfdome.pdf
Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Hiking Map – from nps.gov – Download the full map at : https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/halfdome.pdf
The John Muir Trail - Yosemite National Park
The John Muir Trail – Yosemite National Park

Travel Notes

  • This is one of the best hikes out of Yosemite Valley and all the guide books share it.  That means during the busiest parts of the season this can be one of the most crowded trails in the park.  Start your day early to avoid crowds (although you’ll be in the company of those heading up Half Dome).  The section to Vernal Falls is the busiest with significant thinning out by the time you reach the top of Nevada Falls.
  • Packing plenty of water on this hike is essential.  The park service posts a recommendation that hikers heading to the top of Nevada Falls should pack 3-4 liters of water per person.  Pack more than you think you’ll need, especially since sections of the trail can be quite sunny and hot in the summer.
  • There are quite a few bathroom stops on the trail, including at the top of both waterfalls. (Good thing, since you’re carrying all that water right?)
  • Spring and early summer are when the waterfalls pack the biggest punch.  It can also be the most dangerous time to hike on these trails.  Be mindful of your footing and don’t ever wade into the water.
The Park Chasers - on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park
The Park Chasers – on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park

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