YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — “They” say the most iconic sight in Yosemite National Park is either Half Dome or El Capitan.
But “they” are wrong. The most iconic place is one that doesn’t require being in decent shape to enjoy and is more than just a flat stroll. It often leaves newbies and first-timers with memories and a thirst for more of a hike.
Having now made 80 plus trips into the 1,169 square miles of heaven that is this country’s third oldest national parks, I can reel off a long list of favorites in terms of bests.
The best peak to hike — Mt. Dana at 13,061 feet.
The best lake to snooze by — Upper Cathedral Lake out of Tuolumne Meadows.
The best vista to take in Yosemite Valley — North Dome.
The best place to take breathtaking photos after having your breath taken away getting there — overlooking the top of Yosemite Falls that is the tallest in the nation at some 2,425 feet above the valley floor.
The best place for a hike that is relatively easy, awe-inspiring and away from the crowds — along Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to Wamapa Falls.
The best relatively secluded and lightly visited lake — Ostrander Lake.
The best heart-stopping hike — the last 300 yards to Cloud’s Rest that crosses the narrow spine that has drop-offs of thousands of feet including the drop of a granite face in the park.
However, the best place to visit in the park to get the quintessential Yosemite experience if you are there for one day is hiking along the Merced River on the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls.
To really appreciate Yosemite you need to get a bit out of the valley floor.
Don’t get me wrong. The reason four million-plus people from all over the world flock to Yosemite each year is because of nature’s handiwork through three glacier periods — we call it climate change today — that carved out an awe-inspiring valley by wearing down massive stretches of solid granite.
But there is a difference from wandering around the valley spending your day craning your neck to see the sights plastered on various forms of media worldwide as opposed to soaking in — and that’s literal at sometimes of the year – the experience of an actual hike in Yosemite.
The Mist Trail is the hike I fall back on to introduce people to Yosemite for the first time.
I admit I no longer like the crowds — it is that popular even in the fall “off season” when it is a little bit less wall-to-wall — but it is well worth the reaction of those you bring there as they can get a feeling of accomplishment while following a trail along the Merced River first to Vernal Fall where most first-timers are amazed at the view and then to Nevada Fall that makes them forget about Vernal Fall.
The nice thing about the hike is there are three turnaround points that you can tailor to what your companions can handle.
The best place to start is to park near Curry Village and walk to Happy Isles that is the starting point of the hike. There is also a shuttle bus stop there but if you park at Curry Village it only adds less than a half mile to the trip.
The first stop is Vernal Bridge. On the way there you can take in not just views of the ever present Merced River but across the way you can see the granite encased mountainside where not too many years ago a football-sized section peeled off and crashed into the rocks below. The bridge offers a view of the 317-foot Vernal Fall sending the Merced River plunging downward. If this is your turnaround point it is a 1.6-mile round trip to the bridge with 400 feet in elevation gain. There are a few steep parts and some long hauls upward. I’ve seen visitors actually hike it in high heels. You will also come across more than a few people pushing baby strollers.
The crowd thins a bit but not much after you cross the bridge. If you head on up to Vernal Fall to make that your turnaround point it is 2.4 miles round trip with a 1,000-foot gain. To gauge the difficulty for you, the hike to the bridge was considered moderate by most while adding in the segment to Vernal Fall makes it strenuous for some.
This is where you will encounter the first series of steps created with stones and cutting into the mountainside.
This is also my favorite part of the trip. Even with summer winding down two weeks ago during my last visit water was still running strong enough to impress. Below the fall are a series of rocks that are above the Merced River where hikers take photos and even sit awhile and soak it all in.
You will almost always see a rainbow.
Hike the route during the early spring and the Merced River is raging and the noise of falling water deafening. This is also the time of year even on a clear, bright day you would be well advised to bring rain gear. There is a reason it is called the Mist Trail. As you ascend or descend the semi-stone stairway you will be soaking wet. There doesn’t need to be a wind blowing. The force of the falling water sends spray for hundreds of feet.
It’s tough to top the cooling experience of hiking in the spray of a waterfall. Nevada Fall beyond Vernal Fall can’t offer that but it does offer an even more impressive drop of 480 feet plus an adjacent granite shelf that is ideal for a lunch break or simply enjoy sunning or taking a nap. Nevada Fall is a 5.4-mile round trip that takes around five hours and comes with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation.
Beyond Nevada Fall you can head toward Little Yosemite Valley and the trail to Half Dome. To snake your way up Half Dime requires a permit. My advice is it is not worth it. Some Half Dome lovers would call that blasphemy including more than a handful of people that have actually hiked it in excess of 100 times. The crowds are way too much for me and those who come ill-prepared and remember halfway up they are afraid of heights or else show no fear make it unpleasant. I’ll hike to Cloud’s Rest any day. It’s across the way, it’s higher, it’s got somewhat better views and there is only a trickle of people on its football field-sized summit as opposed to Half Dome where it takes on the feel of a Shriner’s Convention. Besides from Half Dome with the naked eye you can see the “ant” trail heading up the granite. If you have binoculars you can stretch out atop Cloud’s Rest enjoying the relative solitude while looking at the traffic jam working its way up and down Half Dome.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Dress for the hike. Tennis shoes and such are nice but more than a few people who head out this time of year expecting it to be cold find out they can easily overheat in long pants. Make sure you bring water.
And most important of all don’t do anything stupid. The Mist Trail in some years ranks as the most deadly area in the park. It has nothing to do with the trail as it does people taking stupid risks getting too close to the river and losing their footing on slippery rocks. The Merced can be treacherous even in the fall.
That said, stay away from the edge of the falls. There are 750 miles or so of maintained trail in Yosemite National Park and I can only think of perhaps a dozen places that have railing in place and even less that have signs warning you not to cross the railing. Nevada Fall is one of them. Yet almost every year someone climbs over the rail, loses their footing and plunges over Nevada Fall to their death. A few years back four young people died at one time — two from Manteca and two from Modesto — when they made the fateful mistake to ignore the warnings.
Yosemite is not Disneyland. Despite all the people it is still 100 percent wilderness.