Matt Niswonger

The Mist Trail is considered Yosemite Valley’s signature hike. A popular challenge for visitors from all over the world, the 1.5-mile journey to the top of Vernal Falls has unfortunately been the scene of many deaths over the years. While most of the victims were swept over the falls when they climbed past a barrier at the top of the hike, there are actually many dangerous spots along the lower parts of the trail as well.

A view from the top of Vernal Falls. The beauty of this hike is partly what makes it so dangerous. Photo by Matt Niswonger.

Right now is the most dangerous time for the Mist Trail. The river is at near record flow due to the unusually large snowpack, and the sunny weather is melting more snow every day. Don’t get me wrong, the trail is beautiful, but many hikers are lulled into a false sense of security and lose their bearings while enjoying the spectacular scenery. While only about 15 visitors die in Yosemite National Park each year, this statistic does not reflect the thousands of close calls that are not reported in the media. Fifteen deaths compared to 4.3 million annual visitors may not sound like much, but almost every one of those tragedies was entirely preventable.

The Mist Trail right after the bridge. Photo by Matt Niswonger.

I experienced one of those close calls while hiking with my daughter’s middle school band class in May. About twenty minutes past the bridge overlook where hikers first glimpse Vernal Falls, the trail gets narrow right as it crosses a near vertical cliff band. To our left was a steep fifty-foot drop straight down to the churning river, and to the right was a slippery granite wall. Many of the tourists coming in the opposite direction were tired after completing the hike, and some were not careful to avoid those of us climbing past this bottleneck in the opposite direction.

On certain parts of the trail there is simply no margin for error here and a tired person could inadvertantly bump someone right off the cliff. Just as I was thinking it would be nice to have a railing at a certain spot, I looked back to see that one of our students was perched right along the edge to avoid a rather large man chugging down the trail in the opposite direction. To my horror I saw that the student was balanced precariously on a wet rounded knob right at the edge of the cliff in order to get out of the man’s way. Her feet were slipping just as I reached out and forcibly pulled her back to the center of the trail.

This part of the Mist Trail is potentially dangerous. If you slip down this gully it’s certain death. Photo by Matt Niswonger.

I was shaken by this incident and it took me a few minutes to relax and calm down. The girl’s mother was a chaperone and witnessed the whole thing, and luckily she hiked down to stand next to her daughter for the remainder of the day. What I’ve noticed is that some kids are not very sure-footed and so I do not recommend the Mist Trail for unaccompanied minors, at least until they have proven themselves to be safe hikers.

Besides the issue of children on the trail, another important safety tip is to avoid taking pictures except at the obvious wide spots along the hike. I saw some people snapping pictures while they were walking and this is just plain stupid because there are certain sections where one slip could be fatal. The mist is very heavy right now so keep your phone in your pocket until you reach an obvious place to stop. Be advised that if you walk with your phone in your hand it will become saturated with water.

The railing at the top of the Mist Trail. Photo by Matt Niswonger.

The last part of the Mist Trail is a very steep staircase and thank God it’s protected with a railing. These steps are wet so it’s best to place your feet carefully. When you get to the top, do not under any circumstances climb past the railing at the lip of the falls. In 2011 a woman decided to get her feet wet about 25 feet from the lip, and tragically she was swept over the falls along with two would-be rescuers. Needless to say, if you go over Vernal Falls it’s certain death.

Overall the most important thing you can do on the Mist Trail or any other Yosemite hike is to stay sharp and keep your wits about you. Yosemite is a place of spectacular beauty but this beauty can quickly turn deadly. In twenty-five years of climbing and hiking there I’m lucky to say I survived a few close calls. Each and every one of those close calls involved a lapse in concentration so stay focused and keep track of your loved ones. Happy hiking!

The author on the Mist Trail. Find a safe place to take photos and watch your footing.