Merced River Canyon in Yosemite via the Mist Trail from Happy Isles

Who: Just me!
What: Backpacking
When: 5/13/19-5/14/19
Where: Yosemite National Park
Mileage: 25 miles
Elevation gain/loss: +5,350ft/-5,350ft
More photos: here
CalTopo: here

I had a good 9 days between the last day of instruction and when my final exams were scheduled, so even with a few days for review sessions and extra office hours, I still had plenty of time to head off to the woods to shake the winter off and train for more involved trips later in the summer. Typically, I head up to the Trinity Alps (1, 2) during this time, but with the big winter we’ve had here in 2019, there aren’t many great options up there around this time, so instead I headed to Yosemite. I usually try to avoid Yosemite Valley, especially in the spring, since it’s so full of people, but wow, this trip has shifted my perspective. Dare I say that I may even have become an early-season valley enthusiast? Indeed, I have, though the conditions definitely made me change my plans and I ended up splitting my trip into two pieces. This is the second part, you can read about the first part over here.

Day 1
Valley Backpacker Campground to Echo Creek
12.5 miles, +4,200ft/-950ft

I woke up around 6:30am, had breakfast, packed up camp and hit the trail by 7:30am. I wanted to get to Happy Isles and the Mist Trail before the big crunch of day hikers, but I forgot about the extra 2 miles I’d have to walk just to get to the trailhead from the Backpacker’s campground. Later in the season when North Pines isn’t flooded, the walk is half as long. You can also avoid the walk by taking the shuttle, but this early in the season that means walking half a mile to the Ahwahnee and riding the shuttle round and round from stop #3 to stop #16. I made it to the trailhead by 8:15am and started up the steep, paved path. The Merced was raging and very impressive from the bridge below Vernal Fall.

Vernal Falls

Soon after the bridge, there is a junction where you can choose the Mist Trail or the JMT. Even with my overnight pack, I decided to take the Mist Trail since the last four times I’ve come through this area I’ve been heading down and always chose the JMT for descending (it’s a way more gentle descent, much wider and safer). Most of the day hikers put on their rain gear to hike up, but it was a warm day even at 9am and I didn’t feel like sweating into a rain and getting soaked anyway, so I just headed straight up in my normal clothes. When the mist started to get really intense, I was rewarded with rainbows.

Rainbow below Vernal Falls

I only took a couple of photos here since it was so wet that I kept my camera put away for most of the ascent.

Vernal Falls

Merced River

I reached the top of Vernal Fall by 9:15am and stripped of my soaking wet shirt and hat and hung them to dry while I puttered around taking photos and putting on sunscreen. I also chatted a bit with a photographer named Patrick I’d met on the way up—he was super friendly! Give him a follow over on Instagram if you’re so inclined.

Rainbow below Vernal Falls

Double Rainbow below Vernal Falls on the Mist Trail

I hit the trail again around 10am, continuing on the Mist Trail. It’s been 15 years since I hiked this trail but I did remember that the upper section is much less wet than the lower section, so I hoped my now-dry-again shirt would stay that way.

Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall

Nevada Fall

I was up on top of Nevada Fall by 10:30am and managed to find a pair of trees to hang my hammock from and enjoy the view about 20 feet from the gushing falls. My new friend came by after a bit and took a picture of the whole setup. Not bad, not bad.

Lounging at the top of Nevada Fall

USGS marker at the top of Nevada Fall

Mist Trail

Nevada Fall made some rainbows too

I lounged and snacked for quite a while and it was noon by the time I picked up my pack again. On the trail when I neared Little Yosemite Valley I ran into another solo backpacker and somehow we spent about half an hour talking about cross country passes, the permit process, our favorite campsites along the Merced, and so on. It’s great when you run into a kindred spirit. He told me that there were downed trees through the burn section, but that a trail crew was working out there today so maybe it’d be cleared soon, and that nothing was flooded. I headed on and found some emerging snow plant. Such a beautiful parasite!

Snow plant!

This was the first time I’d hike *up* the Merced through this section and I have to say I very much prefer hiking up rather than down. The afternoon light lit up the granite slabs and ephemeral falls all through Little Yosemite Valley.

Burned areas in Little Yosemite Valley are somewhat apocalyptic but let you see the canyon

Burned areas in Little Yosemite Valley are somewhat apocalyptic but let you see the canyon

Merced River


The river through this section is absolutely raging. It’s incredible to be next to the Merced through this section of rapids when it’s really churning.

Merced River

Burned areas in Little Yosemite Valley are somewhat apocalyptic but let you see the canyon

I remembered this stream crossing being a bit annoying last year, and this year the banks are totally washed out. I avoided crossing here and instead found a log crossing a bit downstream.

Washed out crossing

By 3pm I was at the Bunnell Cascade, which was very impressive with the volume and speed of water gushing through.

Bunnell Cascade

Merced River

Merced River

Merced River

I continued on hiking up and arrived at a spot where Miles, Dom, Max, and I had taken a swim in early June of 2018. It was definitely a raging torrent, deep and swift, rather than a placid pool from last year! Wow.

Merced River - I swam in this section last June!!

Merced River

Merced River

Merced River

After a bridge crossing, the trail climbs a couple hundred feet on the south side of the river. Once on top there are a few rather annoying snowmelt stream crossings that are barely noticeable later in the season.

Merced River

Walking up slabs along the Merced

Merced River

Soon enough the trail takes you back down to the river and crosses again to continue on the northern side. In this section I met a day hiker who was on a loop from Little Yosemite Valley. It was nearly 5pm by now and I was worried about him making it back before dark!

Merced River

When I arrived at the next junction, I turned north to follow the connector trail along Echo Creek. There’s a massive mess of deadfall on this section.

More trees down

I reached my favorite campsite in this area at 5:15pm, exhausted. I set up camp and and made dinner, keeping an eye out for some charismatic megafauna. The last two times I’ve camped here I’ve seen bears. That wasn’t in the cards for me this time, unfortunately. I didn’t even see any bear sign.

View from camp

Campsite along Echo Creek

I was trying out some new food on this trip and it turned out to be super duper good. After ordering 4 meals to test out, I remembered that my friend Dom had carried some empty food packages on our trip to Yosemite the year before and I thought they looked similar to the ones I bought. When I got home I texted him about it and he said that yeah, the company is his friend’s startup! I gotta say, the beef taco really hit the spot. Super tasty but the price is definitely spendy.

Dinner time!

I hung out on the cliffside, enjoying my evening view and looking for bears before hitting the hay.

View from camp

View from camp

Campsite along Echo Creek

Day 2
Echo Creek to Happy Isles via JMT
12.5mi, +1,650ft/-4,850ft

I woke up to an overcast and cloudy sky. In the Sierra, this almost always means you’re gonna get rained on that day, and this was no exception. I used my new Garmin InReach Mini to get a weather forecast, just for shits n giggles since whatever it was I’d still be just hiking out to catch a mid-afternoon YARTS bus.

Gray morning at camp does not bode well

I had breakfast, packed up camp, and hit the trail around 7:30am. I crept along quietly, still keeping an eye out for bears. Still no bears. I took the connector trail farther north and then turned left to the connector that follows along the shoulder of the Merced and meets up with the JMT.

Juniper and Mt Clark

There are some lovely views along this section, but I must admit that I was mostly distracted by the gloomy dark clouds rolling in from the west.

Slabs along the connector trail

Half Dome peeking

Clouds getting serious and it's starting to rain, bye camera!

I put on my rain gear and put my camera away when I saw it raining/snowing over Mt Clark, so no more photos on this section.

Clouds getting serious and it's starting to rain, bye camera!

The day hiker I’d met who was doing the loop had said there were a ton of downed trees and that he’d had a hard time following the trail. There were indeed quite a few downed trees, but I never found it difficult to stay on the trail. I walked in the rain, down down down, until Little Yosemite Valley where I met up with the trail that goes along the Merced. I turned and headed back down to Nevada Fall, and just above it I saw the day hiker from the day before, but this time with all his pack and everything. We hiked together for a while down the JMT and through that ephemeral waterfall section, getting totally soaked. But he was a bit slow for my pace, so after half an hour of walking together I tried to get his instagram handle but I dont’ think I communicated properly (he was a German with just passable English) because when I went to look him up once I had service, I couldn’t find him. Maybe he’s reading this! Are you him? Did you fall and gash your shin open just below the waterfall and have me help get your first aid kit out? If so, holler!

Anyway, I was back at the pizza shack at Curry Village by 1:30pm and managed to snag a spot on the 3:15pm YARTS bus which connected with an earlier-than-planned train, so all in all I made it back to Oakland by 9:30pm.

Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need a Happy Isles –> Sunrise/Merced Lake (pass through) permit from Yosemite. You can book Amtrak and YARTS tickets on their respective websites. Amtrak also has a brochure featuring the San Joaquins line of their trains. On the last page of this brochure is a map that shows the train line in orange and bus connections in green.

2 thoughts on “Merced River Canyon in Yosemite via the Mist Trail from Happy Isles

  1. thanks for this post-i enjoyed this as well as all your others! I had a quick question if I may. about how far in are the Bunell Cascades? I am heading up on Sunday to day hike into LYV via the Mist Trail-but I wondering if I could possibly make it to the cascades as well. it looks super far(10+ in) but I am comfortable and willing to tackle 15(round trip). just curious if I am anywhere close at 7.5mi in . looks gorgeous and have not been. thank you.

    1. It’s about 3 miles or so from LYV campground. You hike through a hot open old burn area for 2 miles and then begin to climb a bit more when the canyon gets narrower after the burn area. It’s soon after that.

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