Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall, California

Although only 96.6m tall, Vernal Fall is one of Yosemite National Park's most impressive waterfalls. Like the Nevada Fall, it is one of the few waterfalls in the park that cannot be seen from the valley level by automobile. Intrepid tourists must climb to its base to feel the mist rising from its thunderous streams. The Mist Trail, which provides access to both these falls and the moist air that rolls from the foot of the falls to bathe passing hikers, is one of the best places to see this magnificent cascade.

Geography Of Vernal Fall

A view of the Vernal Fall and the Merced River from Washburn Point, Yosemite National Park, California
A view of the Vernal Fall and the Merced River from Washburn Point, Yosemite National Park, California. 

Vernal Fall is a 96.6m tall waterfall in Yosemite National Park located in east-central California that spans the Merced River about 6 km above its junction with Tenaya Creek. The waterfall is not visible from the main valley but is easily accessible via a well-known path beginning close to the Happy Isles Nature Center. The trail (the John Muir Trail, also known as the Mist Trail) begins flat but quickly becomes sandy and rocky, and it is frequently quite busy. It flows through forested territory just north of the Merced River, which is a fast-flowing, boulder-filled whitewater torrent with several minor rapids and cascades at this point. As the trail steadily ascends and turns east, the vista back into Yosemite Valley becomes more stunning. The waterfall runs all year. However, by the end of summer, it shrinks somewhat and then can break into many strands rather than a single curtain of water.

Hiking Trail

Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park
Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park. 

The footbridge at 0.75 miles provides a fantastic view of Vernal Fall. The Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail split 0.2 miles after the bridge. One may also connect the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail into a loop to reach the top of Vernal Fall (via the Clark Point shortcut) and Nevada Fall. To get to the Vernal Fall's top, one can use the Mist Trail for 0.8 km up a steep granite stairway with over 600 steps. In the spring and early summer, slick footing and a lot of waterfall spray may be experienced. The trail is usually open during the autumn season. In the winter, the Vernal Fall Mist Trail is closed, although access is possible through the John Muir Trail, which may be snowy. Hikers can continue 2.1 km up the Mist Trail to reach the summit of Nevada Fall from Vernal Fall. The John Muir Trail also ascends to Nevada Fall, bypassing Vernal Fall. In the winter, the section of the John Muir Trail between Clark Point and the top of Nevada Fall remains closed. 

The trail ascends a series of steep stairs alongside the waterfall before emerging into a huge, flat, open space at the top with a railing-protected vista right at the edge of the raging water. A big peaceful pond (Emerald Pool) lies just upstream, as is a remarkable cascade known as the Silver Apron, where the waters flow down a smooth 30° slope of polished granite, plunging around 50 feet. These appealing attributes are one of the reasons Vernal Fall is the most hazardous waterfall in Yosemite, with about 17 individuals reported to have perished (since 1924) after being pushed over the brink by strong currents while swimming, wading, boulder hopping, or sliding off the riverbank. Despite several warnings in multiple languages, the deadly circumstances persist. 

Brief History Of Vernal Fall

People hiking in Yosemite National Park at Vernal Falls on Merced River Mist Trail
People are hiking in Yosemite National Park at Vernal Falls on Merced River Mist Trail. Editorial credit: Benny Marty /

Yosemite was colonized by the Miwok people by the late 18th century and, after that, by Mono Lake Paiute and Chukchansi Yokuts. The route to the summit of Vernal Fall was already in place when California took over Yosemite in 1864, but its actual beginnings are unknown. The state acquired the Mist Trail for $300 in 1882, and it has been upgraded and maintained over the subsequent 100 years with stone stairs, rails, and amenities. According to Lafayette Bunnell, the Yosemite Valley inhabitants called Vernal Fall Yan-o-pah, which means "little water cloud." Bunnell offered the current name because the mix of moss, mist, and strong sunshine striking the falls reminded him of Spring, and it derives from Lord Byron's poem. 


People climbing the stairs to Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park, California
People climb the stairs to Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park, California. Editorial credit: Mirko Chianucci /

Vernal Fall is also one of California's most dangerous waterfalls. Since 1924, at least 17 individuals have been washed over the falls after getting too near to the river, and many more have died in the river below the falls. Most recently, in 2011, a party of three crossed the guard barrier at the fall's top to pose for a picture near the river, and all three lost their footing, plunged into the river, and drowned as hundreds of onlookers watched helplessly. One must obey all caution signs and stay within the guard rails provided when visiting Vernal Fall.  This fall is unquestionably one of Yosemite's greatest marvels. If you want to spend a memorable and adventurous day trekking through the rocky paths, then the Vernal Fall is indeed the place to go.


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