One of the most popular features of Yosemite National Park are the waterfalls. And while waterfalls in the winter usually don’t have the same volume of water falling as they do in the spring, winter can be an excellent time to see them. Not only are there fewer visitors, but the scenery of waterfalls in the winter give you a unique experience. If you only have the chance to visit Yosemite National Park in the winter, the Vernal and Nevada Falls will usually be one of only a handful of hikes you can do as much of the rest of Yosemite is inaccessible due to the seasonal closure of Tioga Road.
If you do journey into the park in winter, you will want to be prepared for snowy and icy conditions. Not only will the hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls offer you spectacular scenery, but you will get to experience some of the challenges of winter hiking. If you come prepared, expect an adventure that your friends will be jealous of.
Vernal and Nevada Falls are on the Merced River which is the main river that flows through Yosemite Valley. Vernal Falls is just downstream of Nevada falls and is part of the “Giant Staircase.” If you see them from a distance at Glacier Point, you could see why the area has been called as such. They are one of the most popular attractions in the park and can be seen from multiple vantage points. Even though seeing them from afar is still just as exhilarating, the hike that brings you up close is one for the bucket list.
Visiting Yosemite during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic does introduce some limitations. However, it can be argued that it’s probably one of the best times for hikers to visit the park as there has been a drop in visitors compared to recent years. My visit happened to coincide with one of the lowest visitation numbers and when I hit the trails in the early morning I was almost the only person on it. So for those of you who hate crowds, don’t miss this opportunity.
It is important to note that visiting Vernal and Nevada Falls up close in the winter is done differently from how you would see them in the summer. The famous Mist Trail which follows the Merced River closely and features rocky staircases up towards the bottom of the falls is closed in winter. Well, at least part of it. You’ll rejoin it later. Due to rockfall and other obstacles encountered after winter storms, the National Park Service closes the gate to the Mist Trail.
Instead, you will use the Winter Route which takes you on the John Muir Trail and through Clark Point where you will eventually rejoin the Mist Trail and can continue to Nevada Fall. The trails, when covered in snow and ice, can be a bit of a challenge as we’ll note below.
The entire hike is 5.4 miles (8.7km) with 2000 ft (610m) in elevation gain. You can expect around 5-6 hours round trip. If there is heavy snow on the ground plan to add another hour or two. You can certainly hike a portion of the trail. Getting to Vernal Fall is about half the distance and time. And if you are short on time or are happy seeing Vernal Fall from a distance, you can walk to the Vernal Fall Footbridge which is 1.6 miles (2.6km) with 400 ft of gain (122m) and about 1.5 hours round-trip.
For the average person, this hike is considered hard. In fact, the national park rangers have it rated as “strenuous” which is one increment below “very strenuous.” The reality of it is that if you’re more inclined to see nature on TV while sitting at the couch versus going on regular hikes, you will probably find it a hard trail. In the winter, you can add a couple notches in difficulty especially if you have to deal with a lot of snow. For the average hiker, it’s more of a moderate trail but can become hard depending on the winter conditions. Ice and snow can significantly impact how much effort you need, especially as the overall distance and elevation gain increases.
My visit in mid March certainly tipped the scales as there were some tricky parts of the trail where you need to spend more time with balance and foot placement. I will say that if you bring the right gear, you will thank yourself later.
At the very least, you’ll want to bring sturdy hiking boots. Even better would be winter boots with Goretex or other waterproofing material. I couldn’t recommend the Salomon Ultra X 3’s more than enough. I ended up using a dedicated Salomon winter boot from a season ago. If you come to the park with sneakers or boots that aren’t designed for hiking, you’ll want to reconsider how far you’ll go on this hike. You can make it up to the footbridge with some icy patches hear and there, but beyond that, you’ll want to have shoes that offer traction and stability.
Another item to bring along would be trekking poles. This may be a controversial item to some hikers, but for the sake of safety, opt to have them. Not only will they help you with stability and getting up and down steep sections easier, they will make your hike a lot safer. If you have great balance, then you probably don’t need them, but if you’re balancing abilities are weak, it’s worth it to bring some. After heavy snowfall, packed snow from other hikers will turn into ice as the sun melts the surface. This can make steeper parts of the trail very slippery. There are also sections of the John Muir trail where the trail virtually disappears if the snow was heavy enough. Trekking poles give you the ability to test the path in front of you for gaps or uneven surfaces before you step forward. Z style folding poles may be a good option if you are on the fence as these break down and can be easily stored in your pack.
Get a good pair of microspikes. I currently recommend the Kahtoola Microspikes. There are other, cheaper options out there, but after testing those, I can say that a lot of them are relatively junk in comparison. This is despite all the 5 star reviews you may see. In fact, some of the cheap microspike copies are actually fairly dangerous. I’ll have to elaborate more on this in another article.
There seems to be a lot of confusion over what crampons are. Crampons aren’t microspikes. They are much more aggressive style gear used for mountaineering and more technical hikes. For the most part, you don’t really need crampons. There are a few sections (at certain times of winter) which may warrant crampons, but for 99.9% of the trail, you don’t need them. Unless the trails are completely iced over and most of the trail is unrecognizable, you won’t want to lug them around. The same goes for snowshoes. Unless there has been a major winter storm, it’s unlikely that you’ll need snowshoes. For other trails in the park, crampons and snowshoes may actually make sense.
Winter hiking at Yosemite National Park can be a fun adventure. Not only can you use the opportunity to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site in it’s winter glory, but you can experience a different kind of hiking that may not be available near you. Getting up in the Sierras in the snow will give you a chance to experience some new forms of hiking. If you haven’t done any mountaineering, you may have the opportunity to check out some of the more advanced trails in the park if there is enough snow. If you have some snowshoes or cross-country skis you can consider going from Badger Pass to Glacier Point. If you really want, get up in the upper parts of the valley near Dewey Point for some crazy adventures. For everyone else looking for a middle point, the Vernal and Nevada Fall hike is a good way to take advantage of winter hiking.