Yosemite is our favorite national park. It’s so close (“just” 3h40 driving from Berkeley) that we can even consider to do the roundtrip in a day. So during the long President’s Day weekend (and Valentine’s day) we decided to see what Yosemite looked like under the snow.
Since it was already our third visit to the park (see our visit last summer here) I have decided to tell you about my favorite Top 3 trails in Yosemite Valley.
#1 Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Duration : 6 – 8 hours roundtrip
Distance : 7.2 miles roundtrip + 1.6 additional miles till Yosemite Point.
Difficulty : strenuous
Elevation gain : 2’969 ft till Yosemite Point !
Elevation at trailhead : 3’967 ft – Elevation in Yosemite Point : 6’936 ft
Depart : Camp #4
Nearest parking : Yosemite Village
Upper Yosemite Fall Trail – I personally nicknamed it “the-trail-that-will-leave-you-no-respite” – is notoriously difficult and physically demanding. It is also an historic trail and one of the most emblematic hike of Yosemite.
Indeed, walking the Upper Yosemite Fall trail was hard, as the effort was constant and the climbing up steep and long. To top it all, the hike ended by one hour of walking in the snow.
Fortunately, all this suffering was worth it, once on the top !
It is a several stages hike :
- 1st step : Columbia rock
An hour climbing up the moutain on a rocky serpentine path through the forest lead to Columbia Rock, the first classical view point of Yosemite Valley.
- 2nd step : Upper Yosemite Fall
We continued our progresses and finally arrived at the foot of Upper Yosemite Fall.
The waterfall, fueled by snow melt, was impressive. The noise, thunderous. At the fall’s feet still laid an enormous frozen pile of snow.
Afterward began the long, long and strenuous ascent zigzaging through the moutain’s pass. Midway, the path was covered with large layers of icy snow, that stayed on till the top.
- 3rd step : Top of Yosemite Fall
The climb up was hard but the panorama was truly incredible on top of Yosemite Fall. If you’re afraid of heigts (like me) don’t get too close to the cliff, the precipice can be quite scary.
- 4th step : Yosemite Point
The sunny weather encouraged us to push on till Yosemite Point, a point of view that offers a clear and unobstructed view of the entire valley.
The few miles left were the hardest : the snow entirely recovered the path, so we had to follow some improvised tracks made by others hikers. In some place, we waded knee deep through the snow.
We finally made it to Yosemite Point, the highest point of Yosemite Valley. 6’936 feet high.
The panorama was breathtaking.
Yosemite Falls Trail merits the number 1 in this list, because of its emblematic status and incredible ascent.
This hike is an achievment in itself and something to be proud of, once achieved. The elevation gain consists of no less than 2’600 feet : some even consider that the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls is the equivalent to climbing over TWO Empire State Buildings ! You are warned…
#2 The Mist Trail – Vernal and Nevada Falls
Depart : Happy Isles
Duration : 4-6 hours roundtrip
Difficulty : moderate to difficult
Distance : 6.5 miles / 10 km
Nearest parking : Curry Village
If you have time only for one hike in Yosemite Valley, CHOOSE THIS ONE.
Indeed, this 10 miles loop offers the best views on Vernal and Nevada falls, as well as the surrounding mountains like Liberty Cap, and let you walk on a section of the famous John Muir trail.
The best way to do this trail is to start by climbing up the Mist Trail and come back down with the John Muir Trail.
At first, the path followed the Merced river. Then, the so-called Giant staircase* led to the top of Vernal fall, the first waterfall. Fortunately, the hard ascent was eased by the great views on the fall along the way.
*(the Giant staircase name comes from the 700 granit steps that constitute the path).
Once on the top of Vernal Fall, we took a break. There, aggressive squirrels tried to steal our bag of chips and large danger signs warned us not to get too close to the fall’s egdes. It seems pretty obvious, yet the many deaths (of people falling over) attest otherwise…
We then started the next part of the trail to access the second waterfall, Nevada. A hanging bridge (Vernal Fall footbridge) and hard ascent later, we finally arrived at the top of Nevada Fall.
Up there, the perspective was lovely and the rest well-deserved. Some hikers even brough a hammoc for napping !
We finished the loop by walking on the John Muir Trail, with fabulous views on Nevada Fall and Liberty Cap.
The trail is also opened to mules and horses, so don’t get surprised if you encounter one of these peculiar “hikers” on the way.
In definitive, Vernal & Nevada Falls trail is a really great hike, and a favorite one of mine – one I would be ready to do again, over and over.
A word for advice : If you can, avoid the summer crowd (traffic jam in the staircases happens frequently!) by starting early. Moreover, the best time to do this hike is during the low season, in october – november, when the trail is still practicable. The Mist trail is partially closed during the winter (from December till late February.
#3 Mirror Lake Loop & Tenaya Creek
Duration : 2-3h roundtrip for the entire loop
Distance : 5 miles / 8 km for the entire loop
Difficulty : easy
Depart : Mirror Lake Trailhead, after Happy Isles
Nearest parking : Curry Village
Within one hour’s walk, Mirror Lake trail lead to the namesake lake, that reflects Half-Dome and Mount Watkins in its clear waters.
The hike looped around Tenaya Canyon. A peaceful place still recovered with snow. We were conveniently alone. Usually the crowd stay at the lake and rarely venture till Tenaya Canyon.
We also crossed the path of an impressive rockfall : in 2009, a large section of rocks (115,000 tons !) collapsed from Ahwiya Point, and buried part of the trail at the time. The impact generated ground shaking equivalent to a magnitude 2.4 earthquake = the noise must have been deafening !
To get a (small) idea of the noise, watch this video, shot by rangers, showing a large bloc of snow falling from the top of Half-Dome (and this is only snow, not rocks…).
Mirror Lake is one of the easiest hike of the park. It is a pleasant stroll in the forest and the lake is a great spot for picnic. This trail also allows visitors to get very close to Half-Dome without having to climb it up.
By the way, did you know that the indian name of Half-Dome is “Ti-sa-sack”? For your personal culture, know that it was the name of a young indian woman “with a tear stained face”, after an old Ahwannee legend (read it here).
Those are the best hikes we have walked through in Yosemite Valley. We need now to further explore the others areas of the park, only opened during the summer, such as Tuolomne Meadows, Wawona, Mariposa Grove (currently closed for renovation) or the underwater valley of Hetch Hetchy !