We spent autumn break of 2011 in Yosemite National Park, staying at Housekeeping Camp on the banks of The Merced River which offered a valley view of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome Checking out part of the Mist Trail sounded like an easy hike for our first day of exploring.
At 3:00 in the afternoon, we left the Happy Isles trailhead and hiked the steep, but paved foot path to Vernal Bridge, elevation 4,035 ft. Then we climbed 500 wet and slippery granite stairs to reach the top of Vernal Falls, elevation 5,044 ft. The mist felt exhilarating, and the views spectacular; we were inspired to continue forward to Nevada Falls, elevation 5,907 feet.
Around 5:30 p.m., after taking many photos along the way, Nevada Falls was in sight but still almost two miles away. In October, the sun sets around 6:30. We stopped to rest and each consumed a tube of Gu energy gel along with more water.
I half-hoped there would be a bus to transport us back down to the parking lot, as there is from Glacier Point, but of course there wasn’t one. Returning the same way we came–descending slick, stone steps in the dark seemed risky. There were many warning signs about falling into the river, and a series of posters of a young couple who’d recently disappeared there.
We turned on our head lamps as twilight fell and opted to take John Muir Trail back, 3.5 miles of rocky switchbacks, carved into the side of the mountain among trees, and land-mined with horse manure. We arrived back at our car, in time to catch dinner at a park restaurant before it closed at 9:00.
The next day, while buying a souvenir tumbler painted with a map of Mist Trail, the park staff told us we’d chosen one of the most difficult hikes in Yosemite. Annually, they rescue over a hundred “guests” who make the climb up, but are unable to return down. And more people have died on beautiful Mist Trail than almost anywhere else in Yosemite.
The takeaway: Research any hike before you go forward. Know how long it will take, what you need to bring to safely traverse the distance, and be sure to assess its suitability for your physical condition. Respect the beauty and hazards of nature.
Participate in this week’s photo challenge at:
- Yosemite’s Quintessential Hike – The Mist Trail (adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com)
- Yosemite in the Winter (christiekiley.wordpress.com)