evada and Vernal Fall


May 30, 2003

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Nevada and Vernal Falls seen from Washburn Point
Nevada and Vernal Falls seen from Washburn Point

Nevada and Vernal falls pictured above lie on the Merced River, just above the point where it enters Yosemite Valley. Vernal is the lower and broader of the two falls, whereas Nevada is the higher and longer fall above and slightly to the right of Vernal. The route to Half Dome passes Vernal and Nevada Fall but is twice the hike: twice the distance, twice the time.

We get up with the birds and are out of camp shortly after 8 to catch a free shuttle bus to Happy Isles where we catch the trail to Vernal Falls. The first part of the hike is very pleasant and not too taxing even for Jan who is still feeling the after-effects of her cold. After about thirty minutes, our first rest stop is at a bridge that crosses the stream from the falls (actually the Merced River, of course) immediately below Vernal Fall. Here we have an unimpeded view of Vernal Falls and gasp with pleasure at the sight. Unlike Yosemite and BridalVeil, Vernal Falls is shorter but wider and very full like a billowing white curtain. To add to the inspiration, the river that the fall produces is a rumbling tumbling crescendo of green and white water that stretches all the way from the foot of the fall to the bridge we are standing on and beyond. We had been mightily impressed with the speed and fullness of the Merced river as we entered the park several miles downstream the previous morning, but that was nothing compared to the ferocity and ferment of the Merced river that we see here.

Ten minutes later, we start climbing up to the fall proper and even though we had got wet at the foot of Yosemite Falls a couple of days earlier, we are not prepared either for the amount of water coming over the falls or the amount of collateral spray experienced by hikers on the trail. What starts out as a gentle mist steadily increases in both volume and force as we climb until every step brings another dousing of icy cold water. We get so thoroughly drenched that at one point Jan is ready to turn around as she is so wet and cold she is afraid she’ll catch pneumonia. But Gerry urges her on and eventually we do get above the spray and onto a rocky outcropping where we and all the other unprepared hikers can wring the water from our shirts and spend some time in the sun trying to warm up and dry out.

We spend a pleasant ten to fifteen minutes in the sun, munching on a trail-mix bar until we feel energy enough to continue. But first we have to venture down the huge sloping granite rock we are on to the top of Vernal Falls and see from above the wall of water that brought us so much discomfort. Our most fervent wish was that we had Gerry’s camera with us in working order. Oh what a fantastic picture that roiling, roaring water was as it raced through the gap and dived on its way.

Our next goal is Nevada Fall. There are trails to Nevada on both sides of the river: one is steeper and keeps closer to the river and fall on its right bank, the other on the left bank is longer and more gradual. Jans first priority is neither distance nor climb but to be sure that there will be no repeat of the Vernal Fall soaking. Reassured by Gerry’s reading of the map, we cross the river to the right bank and climb up toward the fall until once again we start to feel the mist and spray. Not too surprisingly the trail is called the Myst Trail! Jan has already turned us around when Gerry tries one more time to convince her to continue. A couple of other hikers who claim to know the trail say that it cannot be as bad as Vernal Falls, so Jan is convinced and up we go getting only moderately wet and at least on the opposite side of the body this time.

Our reward is to to see the most spectacular display of water-driven power that we have experienced since Niagara. We are at about the midpoint in height of the fall switchbacking up a rocky face by the side of the fall but far enough away to be completely dry. The noise of the fall alone is like a permanent thunderstorm, but that aside, the view of the water as it comes over the lip of rock above is like a thousand explosions, each one shooting out fingers of water in a different direction like a scattershot of lacy water rockets. The effect however, is then doubled and redoubled because the falling water hits shelves in the rock face and explodes out again and again, thundering noise and wonder. We are impelled to stop several times as we climb higher and higher, not only to rest our aching lungs and legs, but to give us time to take in this amazing sight.

Ultimately, we huff and puff and pant our way to the top of the cliff and work our way along the clifftop toward the water. There we find another huge slab of granite hanging just over the fall. Metal railings have been put up to prevent tourists from toppling into the falls, but it took Gerry a little while to convince himself that they would not fail. Eventually, however, he managed to overcome his misgivings and looked into the maw of the beast. Not only did we have a magnificent view of the fall itself but also of the entire valley back down to Vernal Fall and beyond.

The return trip down the left-bank trail was nowhere near so dramatic, although for fifteen minutes after crossing the river above Nevada Fall we could look back and see and hear Nevada Fall thundering on down into the valley. But a bug got into Jan and she raced down the trail as if a bear was behind her. Or perhaps, a sports car analogy is better: she wanted to pass and pass: each time there was somebody on the trail in front of her she added steam to her engine and charged forward.

Updated July 14, 2003