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May 18, 2010

Yosemite Mist Trail Hike (in Vibrams!)

No (and sadly), I haven’t made a return trip to Yosemite since the snow-covered adventure I documented in April; I just got so far behind with other posts I wanted to do that this report kept getting pushed aside. Until now, that is.

The Mist Trail is Yosemite’s signature hike, with more scenic bang for your buck than any other trail I’ve seen. It’s steep and challenging, but its overall mileage is fairly low compared to other “top of waterfall” hikes out of Yosemite Valley – and if you’re in decent shape, you can knock the whole thing out in a matter of hours.

So when my wife and I got snowed out of reaching our primary destination the previous day, only to wake up the next morning to sunshine and forecast temperatures in the 70s, we decided to squeeze one more hike in between checking out of the lodge and starting our return trip home. It was like Yosemite was making a peace offering to us for screwing up our plans the day before – and we thought it might be bad form to decline. You don’t disrespect Mother Nature.

With only a half day to play with and a desire to take in as many cool sights as possible, the Mist Trail was an easy choice. And since I was familiar with the trail from previous trips, I decided to hike in my Vibram KSOs. I knew it might pose some unique difficulties, but I was also confident that the Vibrams and I were up to the task.

The official start of the trail is just past the Happy Isles bridge at the western end of Yosemite Valley. The bus drops you off at the bridge, but many people –like my wife and me – start from Curry Village and hike the relatively flat 1.5 miles to reach this trailhead.

Footwear isn’t really an issue during the first mile from the trailhead, as the “trail” is a smoothly groomed asphalt path. Leg strength might be an issue, though, as parts of this mile have the highest percent grade on the entire hike.

Once you reach the footbridge that ends the paved trail, you get your first glimpse of the Merced River spilling over Vernal Fall in the distance, and sense its power crashing through its boulder-strewn downstream riverbed. Remember that morbid Death in Yosemite book I was fascinated with? It determined that more people have died in the Merced than anywhere else in the park. I thought it prudent to not remind my wife of that fact as we hiked alongside it.

Beyond the footbridge, you get your first “real” trail exposure as the pavement gives way to a nicely groomed stretch of dirt; still no problem for the Vibrams. The dirt doesn’t last long, however, and the first challenge is just ahead …

The steep, irregular, typically wet rock stairs that are the defining feature of the Mist Trail. Why are they so wet? For the same reason this trail gets its name …

… as this entire section is completely shrouded in heavy mist from Vernal Fall, which begins amassing strength in early March, growing in both size and decibel level as snowmelt from the mountains swells the Merced River throughout the spring. It’s probably about halfway full in the photo above – and pretty much anytime from April to August or September, you can expect to get soaked going through this portion of the trail.

Since significant stretches of the rock stairs skirt the edge of a precipice into the Merced …

… and since the views of Vernal Fall get more mesmerizing as you climb closer …

… this seemed like a great spot for a nifty “Vibrams hanging over the edge” picture. At least, so I thought. This sort of stuff practically gives my wife a heart attack; apparently she feels that I’m a big enough risk to my own safety in everyday life without intentionally seeking more danger to flirt with. (And come to think of it, there’s definitely some truth to that.) It’s a type of panic that comes from love and concern - either that, or I’m just worth more to her alive than dead. Whatever the case, I tend to get chewed out when I try little stunts like this.

As you get closer to Vernal Fall, the rock stairs get steeper and more irregular …

… until you reach the final climb that is chiseled below the overhanging granite. Two notes on this part:

1) In late April, the water seeping and dripping out of this rock face was like stepping into in a shower, and

2) The railing wobbles a little bit. It’s secure, but there’s just enough play to make you realize how hopeless it would be if the whole thing gave way. Just something to ponder.

At the top of Vernal Fall, you can take a little rest break on the wide open granite, walk up to the guardrail that looks almost straight down the fall (my wife said no thanks to this one), or just take in the view across the valley before continuing on.

Above Vernal Fall and the Silver Apron, the trail levels off briefly - and now that you’re above 5000’, snow becomes more prevalent. It’s also not long before …

… you start seeing some killer views of Nevada Fall as you make your approach. Like Vernal before it, Nevada Fall is in view for large segments of the trail, with the sights growing more awesome the closer you get.

The trail also gets a bit more rugged from this point, varying between long stretches of irregular granite like this, and rock staircases like the one below Vernal Fall carved straight into the hill.

Closer to the top, the staircases were tough to distinguish from the snow and slush that was packed on all sides. This was the section where I had to pay the most attention to footing …

… even with the distraction of a majestic waterfall just off my shoulder.

The trail finally flattens out a bit at the top, which is where my wife took this photo to accompany a FeedTheHabit review of the pants I was wearing. It also turned into a nice shot of the Vibrams, which had given me absolutely no problems to that point.

On both sides of this footbridge over the Merced at the top of Nevada Fall, there is tons of space to kick back on top of the rocks and chill out for a while. You’ve reached the top of this particular tour, so it’s a great place to have a little snack, gaze out from your lofty vantage point above the valley …

… or contemplate your existence perched on the crest of a 600 foot waterfall. Not pictured: my wife’s heart rate hitting about 200 beats per minute at this exact moment.

Normally when hiking to Nevada Fall, I prefer descending via the John Muir Trail, which continues from the bridge and loops around to rejoin the Mist Trail below Vernal Fall. Unfortunately, on this day the Muir Trail was still buried in snow, so the hike became an out and back affair for us.

Once the alternate route was decided, I was more than a little concerned about going down all the steep, rocky, wet and/or slushy stairs we had climbed on our way up, but my footing always felt very secure with the Vibrams, even on the most treacherous sections of trail. I had to be slightly more aware of foot placement than with standard hiking shoes, but that’s probably a nice adaptation for any hiker to develop.

Eventually we made it all the way down to the river crossing at Happy Isles and our starting point at Curry Village for a 8-to-9 mile hike (I didn’t GPS this one, sorry) with a refreshed appreciation for the trail we just finished, and the beautiful day we were given to enjoy it. As we discovered the day before, things don’t always work out the way you want them to at Yosemite; on this morning, we were more than happy with the outcome.

So how did the Vibrams perform? Certainly well enough that I would repeat this hike in them without any apprehension. My biggest issue was that my toes got wet going up the stairs below Vernal Fall, which also happen to be shaded from the sun in long stretches – and since the day hadn’t quite warmed up by that point, I had to deal with mildly frosty toes for about 15-20 minutes until we came into the sunshine again. I didn’t feel like my overall speed or agility were compromised, and I was pleasantly surprised by the traction of the KSO soles on those granite steps in both directions.

Last September, I briefly considered doing our Half Dome run in Vibrams, but thought better of it; I had only been using them for a couple of months at that time, and my legs hadn’t fully adapted to long-duration activity in minimalist footwear on rugged terrain. At the time, it was the right decision – but if I were to do the same run again sometime, I’d feel perfectly comfortable wearing them (or more likely my Treks, with even better traction) instead of traditional hiking or trail running shoes.

That’s another adventure for another day, I guess; it’s getting to the point where I can’t even keep track of all the things I want to do anymore. I’m choosing to view that as a good thing.


RICK'S RUNNING 5/19/10, 12:10 AM  

WOW! That scenery is Gigantically Awesome!!!
Your one luck guy to get to run on trails like that :]

Ewa 5/19/10, 6:08 AM  

I've been so tempted to do Half Dome in KSO's but I worry about how they grip on the last portion with the cables. I hiked enough in VFF's that I don't worry about the distance and my feet but that slippery in places rock concerns me a lot.
Your pics make me want to go to Yosemite NOW.

Thomas 5/19/10, 6:20 AM  

Take out some hefty life insurance.

Then, next time you go for a nifty “Vibrams hanging over the edge” picture with your wife in the immediate vicinity (and no witnesses) you will find out once and for all if you are worth more to her alive than dead.

Anne 5/19/10, 6:51 AM  

Sounds like it was a great adventure for both you and your feet. I wondered if the toes felt the cold and I'm glad you mentioned that. A great way to end a vacation.

iJuls 5/19/10, 8:43 PM  

As usual, wonderful review, photos, story. I just got a pair of KSOs and, with only 4 miles logged, am loving the increased awareness of what's under foot. It's early but so far I really like them.

Stacey K 5/20/10, 2:48 PM  

Love my KSO's! Wonderful pictures! Looks like it was a fantastic outin!

Brian 8/6/10, 7:01 AM  

Hey! I'm 37 and a piano player and not as active as I'd like to be. Got really into VFF 3-4 months ago and now I'm running 4.7 miles in them... (KSO). Which is 4.7 miles more than I was running before.

Anyway, I'm thinking about signing up for an REI sponsored backpacking trip, maybe a 3-4 star difficulty. Do you have any experience with how my feet/legs and VFF's would hold up to this? And how would KSO's compare with KSO Trek's?

Thanks! Great article!

Donald 8/8/10, 3:42 PM  

Brian: I'm very comfortable using KSOs and Treks for hiking, but I've also been using them (and other minimalist stuff) for quite a while now. Treks would definitely be better for rugged hiking, but your legs could certainly get sore through the calves, ankles, and/or heels if you haven't spent quite a bit of time in Vibrams beforehand.

Rachel 8/25/10, 12:05 PM  

I am hiking the South Rim of the Grand Canyon next month. Each time I do it in hikers, I lose 4 toenails. I have been wearing VFF exclusively for about 5 months now. Do you think the Treks could be a good option for a hike with 5,000 vertical feet down and back up? My legs have never felt better than when I wear my VFF but the hike is pretty rigorous and not something that I can replicate before getting to the GC.

Donald 8/26/10, 10:05 PM  

Rachel: I'd definitely feel comfortable doing the GC in Treks, but it's all a matter of previous experience. The trickiest part would be the steep downhills where your toes might get impinged on the front of the VFFs, but if the toes of your Treks are slightly roomy like mine, it shouldn't be a problem. Since you've been wearing VFF exclusively for a while, I'd say your legs and ankles are more than ready to handle it.

If you do, please report back! I'd love to hear about it.

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