[Editor’s Note: Please click here to see the most recently updated information on these trails for the summer of 2020 and details on how to visit the park safely]
Yosemite National Park is an internationally well-known, historical destination for exploring the great outdoors. Right now in the summer of 2020, the park is working on a phased re-opening to allow visitors to experience its wonder in a safe and limited capacity. I wanted to share a couple of my favorite day hikes from Yosemite Valley for those who are able to safely visit this year.
First protected in 1864, Yosemite boasts nearly 1,200 square miles to explore throughout four different counties. Visitors can find deep valleys, granite cliffs, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area which boasts incredible waterfalls, and much more. Yosemite’s diverse landscape changes with the seasons — offering snow-covered meadows in the winter, spectacular wildflowers and waterfalls in the spring and early summer and fall foliage filled with colors. A visitor could practically travel to the park every weekend for a year, and never have the same experience twice.
The park is huge and welcomes on average about four million people visit Yosemite every year and most visitors spend the majority of their time in the seven square miles Yosemite Valley, which is a great home base for a first-time traveler due to its proximity to food and civilization.
This article focuses on how to have the best experience completing two spectacular hikes close the valley area: Vernal Falls/Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail, and the Sentinel Dome Trail.
Vernal Falls/Nevada Falls Via the Mist Trail
The Vernal and Nevada Falls Trail via the Mist Trail is a moderately strenuous hike takes on average about 5-6 hours, because even though it’s only 5.4 miles roundtrip (if you do the hike as an out-and-back trail — you can also choose to take the John Muir Trail back down, which creates a loop and adds about 1.5 miles to the journey), it’s almost entirely uphill with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. This is the trail that people take when they hike Half Dome in one day — as opposed to spending the night half-way up, and ascending the second half of the journey after camping overnight at Little Yosemite Valley.
The hike begins near Happy Isles in eastern Yosemite Valley (which is shuttle stop #16). The Mist Trail offers insanely beautiful close-up views of waterfalls as well as scenery of the Merced River, and Yosemite Valley. The first mile of the trail is paved and therefore is the busiest part of the journey. From there, you’ll accesses the Vernal Fall Footbridge.
Once you’ve crossed the footbridge the Mist Trail and the famed John Muir Trail will diverge from one another — so if you’re interested in being able to share that you’ve stepped foot on the JMT, check it out! Otherwise, continue on the Mist Trail to go toward Vernal Falls up the steep granite stairway of over 600 (SLIPPERY!) steps. If there has been a lot of rain or if you’re visiting in the spring months you’ll basically be stepping underneath the waterfall…
Continue uphill on the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Fall where shortly beyond Vernal Fall, hikers will pass by Emerald Pool and Silver Apron. Following the Mist Trail, trekkers will experience another 1.5 miles of the steep, rocky switchbacks which lead up to the powerful Nevada Fall. This 594 feet this thunderous force of nature is fullest in spring and early summer and there’s a footbridge that crosses the Merced River above the fall which allows for a closer view. Be sure to exercise extreme caution while near any flowing water or wet rocks in this area….
From here, you can either return down the Mist Trail the way you came up, or continue over the bridge to the John Muir Trail for an alternate route back to Yosemite Valley (which is what we did). If you choose to descend along the John Muir Trail, you will enjoy different scenery, with views of Liberty Cap and an alternate view of Nevada Fall. As previously mentioned, the John Muir Trail is slightly longer—approximately 4 miles one-way compared to the Mist Trail’s 2.5 miles.
Sentinel Dome Trail
The Sentinel Dome trail is an short, extremely steep, moderate, 2.2 mile trek with 400 feet of elevation gain (but as it begins at 7,700 feet it’s more challenging than the same trek would be at sea level.) that starts near the Glacier Point parking lot.
It’s traditionally open in the summertime between June and September when the snow doesn’t interfere with hiker safety…Be sure to check out Glacier Point too while you’re here, because it features spectacular views of Half Dome and the valley.
Starting from the parking lot, you will head down about 100 feet before reaching a split in the trail. Left takes you to Taft Point, and right goes toward Sentinel Dome. Continue right, and pass through a section of trees before crossing a small bridge.
The rest of the hike is gradually uphill, before the final ascent to the summit which is the steepest part of the climb.
It can get pretty windy at the top too — so be cautious when walking near the edge!
From the summit of the dome looking west, you’ll look down on Yosemite Valley and beyond to the Merced River canyon and on especially clear days you can even see all the way to Mt. Diablo in the East Bay. To the north you’ll see Yosemite Valley, including El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. To the east, you’ll see Nevada Fall, Half Dome and Clouds Rest, and an assortment of High Sierra peaks.
It’s a beautiful view from the top featuring wildflowers, alpine scenery, and lush greenery.
Interested in more U.S. National Park hikes and weekend warrior adventures? Check out my weekend warrior adventure series, here!
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