STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Hiking Yosemite’s Mist Trail

The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls has always been one of my favorite hikes in Yosemite National Park. Yet this year, due to heavy winter snow, it was a different beast.

For comparison, a few summers back, the water flow was light enough that I (alongside a couple eccentric European backpackers apparently immune to cold) were able to swim in the snowmelt pool beneath Vernal Falls (side note: even in years of drought, it is still dangerous, and still not recommended).

Approaching the trail, I spoke with a local who admitted the steep, cliffside route had taken six lives in the last month alone.

Despite the risk, navigating the trail toward the falls is something that makes a person feel alive. It taps into something carnal; the relentless thunder of water plummeting 3,300 feet to collide with granite, an ominous mist clouding the air, drops of fresh water wetting one’s skin, mixing with the salty sweat dripping from one’s brow, the sierra sun beating down upon one’s back, quads burning from balancing atop lichen-coated stone, lungs drinking in pine-laden air. The water isn’t confined to the falls and rapids either- it pours down the steps of the trail, soaking through hiking boots, wetting socks, turning every blade of grass and sequoia a vivid green.

Climbing the trail, the number of hikers begins to thin out. Most turn back, their expressions fearful. Yet a few continue onward, climbing higher toward the falls, eventually disappearing into the mist.

Perched atop a boulder, stopping for a feast of trail mix and gatorade, a fellow hiker and I joked that the higher a man climbed toward the falls, the more hardship he’d experienced in life, the greater his hunger to reach the top. That a human being reaches the point where they simply do not care about the slippery slope and 2,000 foot cliffside drop into raging rapids. Once a person has been through enough in life, knowing that the only thing standing between oneself and death was 48 inches and one’s own wits was empowering- not frightening.
We trekked onward.

Eventually, I climbed through a small cavern alongside the trail, temporarily seeking shelter from the mist, which had now grown into a continuous, beating shower of water. By now, one could feel the power of the falls echoing throughout their entire body, as if God Himself were reaching straight into a man’s chest and taking hold of his heart, breathing life into every atom of his being.

Around the corner, near the exit of the cavern, all the eye could see was blinding white sunlight, and a thick mist rolling through the air. The rest of the trail was too clouded to be seen- simply mist and rainbows, blanketing the remaining soaking stone steps towards the sky.

I stood next to the falls, taking a deep breath and gently leaving a piece of my soul behind- an offering, of sorts, in exchange for getting this far. Then, with one last look toward the steps beyond, I too, turned around and climbed back down the Mist Trail.

There was more living left to do before I could reach the top.




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