Vernal, Nevada, and Illilouette Fall Route

HARD 12 reviews
#65 of 164 trails in

Vernal, Nevada, and Illilouette Fall Route is a 12.7 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Curry Village, California that features a waterfall and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round.

DISTANCE
12.7 miles
ELEVATION GAIN
4658 feet
ROUTE TYPE
Out & Back

backpacking

birding

camping

hiking

nature trips

walking

forest

river

views

waterfall

wildlife

snow

no dogs

A strenuous route that takes you past the stunning Vernal, Nevada, and Illilouette Falls while offering incomparable views of Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. Vernal and Nevada Falls are the result of the monstrous Merced River thundering down some 500' of granite rock. At its peak, 1,200 cubic feet of water cascade over the falls every second, making for one of the top tourist attractions in Yosemite. As the hike stretches to the Panorama Trail, picturesque views of Yosemite Valley- including North Dome, Merced River, and Yosemite Falls- are prevalent. The hike stretches to the lesser-known Illilouette Fall, which cannot be seen from the valley. This route begins on the Mist Trail, a paved path that runs adjacent to the Merced River. Typically, a hiker would take the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls; however, this particular route is closed in the winter, and thus a portion of the John Muir Trail is taken. An intermittently paved path, this portion of the JMT switchbacks its way to the top of Vernal Falls, where some weary tourists gather to observe the Merced River pour over a granite cliff. From here, the Mist Trail is taken to the top of Nevada Falls. Fewer hikers venture to this point, for the path gains 600' of elevation in less than half a mile, as a rocky series of switchbacks runs next to the falls. Restrooms are available at the junction between the Mist/JMT trail. A short stroll will take you to a breathtaking overlook of Nevada Falls in its full glory, as it plummets almost 600' to its base. From here, you will continue onto the heralded Panorama Trail, which offers views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, North Dome, Mount Broderick, Liberty Cap, and Glacier Point. Typically anytime in the winter months, this trail will be covered in hefty amounts of ice and snow, so bring a traction device for your shoes (crampons, MicroSpikes, YakTrax, etc) to prevent injury. You will gradually descend a series of switchbacks to a footbridge that crosses over Illilouette Creek, though you will have to travel a little further on the Panorama Trail for an unobstructed view of the falls. Allow an entire day for this lengthly hike, especially in the winter (when the ice/snow requires extra caution, care, and time). The peak flow of all three waterfalls are in May/June. Sections of the Mist Trail typically open in April/May and close in November/December. Make sure you have enough water, bring a camera, and enjoy the hike!

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After heavy precipitation upon Yosemite Valley, my father and I decided to drive and see the falls. Having already taken the Yosemite Falls to El Capitan route- and since there was snow on North Dome- we opted to take the Mist/John Muir Trail to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls. While this alone s a strenuous and astonishing hike, we added on to our route by continuing on the Panorama Trail with the goal of seeing Illilouette Fall.

Having stayed in Merced the night before, we arrived at the trailhead (after a two hour drive) at 7:30 AM. The temperature was below freezing, but both Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls had healthy flows, and the roaring Merced River had accompanied us throughout most of the drive on Highway 140.

The route began as somewhat leisurely, as the first incline was on a paved surface alongside the Merced River. About a mile in, we reached a footbridge that crosses over the Merced River; from here, the Mist Trail was closed due to treacherous conditions. The established winter route requires hikers to take the more lengthly John Muir Trail to the top of Vernal Falls.

The John Muir trail was initially paved, but it slowly faded away into a rocky, sporadically icy trail through a sparse forest. Intermittent views of the valley, including Yosemite Falls, complimented us throughout the entirety of our incline; additionally, the Panoramic Cliff rose 2,000' above us, providing an intimidating sight.

The trail eventually began an icy descent to Clark Point. The trail was laden with ice from a completely frozen creek, causing us to descend at a much slower pace than normal. We opted to make up for the lost time by deciding not to venture to Vernal Fall, and hopefully view it in full glory the next time we undertake the trail.

We arrived at the base of Nevada Fall some ten minutes later, and were delighted to see it roaring as it cascaded down a rocky cliff. Ice and frost were prevalent on both sides of the waterfall, with the rocks at the base of the falls being entirely covered with ice. It was essentially the embodiment of Yosemite's waterfalls in the winter, improved with above-average flows.

The Mist Trail continued adjacent to Nevada Fall, rising some 600' in a matter of a few switchbacks. We were able to ascend the rocky switchbacks without much difficulty, for we were favorably distracted by an unparalleled view of Nevada Fall. However, there was a light dusting of snow and ice in some areas, which (unfortunately) required attentive steps.

The scene from the top of Nevada Fall was unforgettable. 600' feet down, the Merced River flowed through a forested landscape, covering its banks in frost and ice. Directly besides us, Nevada Fall flowed in full glory, plummeting to its base. We had a momentary break to observe the falls, and replenished our energy with a sizable serving of trail mix and quite-near-frozen water.

After taking pictures of the statuesque Liberty Dome, we continued up switchbacks to the start of the Panorama Trail. The landscape instantly morphed into an icy, snowy wonderland, as it passed through collections of towering trees. The Panorama Trail offered panoramic (hence its name) views of Yosemite Valley, with Yosemite Falls energetically flowing in the distance.

Unfortunately, we couldn't devote the majority of our attention to the views, for the trail was extremely icy. The remnants of the precipitation from two nights before had entirely frozen over, with frozen, miniature runoff streams causing us to nearly slip and fall over every crossing. We were able to maneuver through, and occasionally around, these obstacles to the footbridge crossing Illilouette Falls.

Due to time constraints, we opted against continuing on the Panorama Trail after the footbridge, and were therefore unable to view the elusive Illilouette Fall. However, despite the ice, snow, and falling short of Illilouette Fall, our trek was unforgettable and rendered our hiking ambitions fulfilled- for a few days, at least.

I would heavily recommend undertaking this trail in the winter, especially if you're fortunate enough to come after a significant rainfall. In the summer, tourists and casual hikers will be aplenty, and will mask the serenity of Yosemite. Plan carefully, bring enough water, and have fun!