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April 25, 2011

Hiking Yosemite With Kids, Part 1: Mist Trail

Admin note: this was intended as a single post, but in true Running and Rambling fashion, I got carried away with things, and before I knew it I had a monster post on my hands. So we’re doing this as a two-part deal, on back to back days tonight and tomorrow. Feel free to comment on one, both, or (sigh) neither – whatever you prefer is fine with me. At this point I just need to rest my fingers for a while.


For each of the past few years, my wife and I have made a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park. On each of these trips, one of our most frequent topics of conversation while hiking throughout the valley has been when we thought our kids would be ready to join us on similar outings.

It was a more complicated question than just taking a family trip together; after all, there are plenty of families who bring young kids to Yosemite to walk around the meadow, explore the trails of the valley floor, or camp in the shadow of the mountains. But since we live in a rural area, our kids are able to experience a lot of natural beauty and do those outdoorsy activities at home. If my wife and I were going to give up our annual dose of seclusion to drag the kids along on a multi-day excursion, they had to be able to handle exploring the park in the same way that we enjoy. They also had to be able to appreciate the majestic grandeur of Yosemite, and capable of putting in the long hours that it might take to appreciate some of its unique features up close.

In other words, they had to be pretty strong little hikers.

Last fall, we finally decided to go for it, and made reservations to visit the park during this year’s spring break. However, we still weren’t fully convinced that our youngsters were up to some of the challenges, so after the first of the year we spent a lot of weekends hiking in the hills of Carmel Valley, all the while counseling them that the trails of Yosemite were even steeper, with more tricky footing, and more unpredictably variable weather conditions. We also assured them that all their practice would be totally worth it. They gradually paid their dues on our home trails, and last week was time for them to cash in and have some fun.

In addition to me and my wife, the cast of characters that set out on our first morning in Yosemite included our 12-year-old son, who was already a veteran of climbing up Sentinel Dome; honestly, we weren’t too worried about him. Our 9-year-old daughter runs with me on a weekly basis, but also shares my affection for wasting the day away with a good book underneath a warm blanket, and would probably be the first one to get discouraged if conditions got too wet, cold, muddy, or otherwise uncomfortable. However, she was also recently drafted into the Running and Rambling gear testing collective, so she was probably feeling a bit of pressure to finish the hike to increase her chances of getting more free stuff in the future. I considered that to be a good thing.

The biggest question mark going into the hikes was our 7-year-old daughter, who had the smallest legs of the group, but is also something of a firecracker. We ultimately decided that if we could channel a portion of her energy for relentless chatter into simply moving one foot in front of the other, she’d be fine. However, she also has the shortest attention span of the group and is prone to wandering off on her own without warning, so she earned “most likely to wind up tumbling off the edge of a cliff or waterfall somewhere” status with my wife and me. Fortunately, since you’re seeing this report on my blog instead of the evening news, you pretty much know how that turned out.

Our first day would be spent on the Mist Trail, which I’ve already documented more thoroughly in this photo tour. It’s about 3.5 miles in one direction, rising nearly 2000 feet while passing by two spectacular waterfalls. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the valley …

… when it’s open, that is. When the trail’s still officially closed for the winter, you’d be surprised at how effectively that scares the tourist traffic away. In our case, it also triggered a nice early-morning discussion of situational ethics, such as when it might be OK to disregard the rules to do something that is totally cool. Yes, it’s a slippery slope of logic: when the objective is seeing a cool waterfall, I’m completely OK with it, but if my youngest daughter ever tells me that she’s thinking about BASE jumping off Half Dome someday, you bet your ass that I’ll say “Absolutely not – it’s against park rules!” So let’s just say I take some liberties with parental authority, and move on.

The Mist Trail more than lived up to its name, as we made our way up the steep granite staircase that was soaked from the spray of nearby Vernal Fall.

Remember what I said about having natural beauty at home? Well, um … we don’t have a waterfall like this in Carmel Valley. We ended up timing our trip almost perfectly for waterfall volume, as heavy late-winter snowfall had melted quickly over the previous couple of weeks of sunshine; consequently, all of the falls we saw on our trip were in full-fledged boom mode.

For the most part, the trail to Vernal Fall was passable, aside from a few little snowbanks to maneuver around here and there. However, between cool temperatures, an overcast sky and getting increasingly soaked, the chill factor on this stretch of trail became pretty bad. But to our pleasant surprise, nobody really complained about it.

It also helped that by this point we were close to the top of Vernal Fall, where we could dry off above the waterfall spray, and where we had the place completely to ourselves. (Must have had something to do with that closed trail thing down below.) Each of our kids stood on the precipice of the 480’ vertical drop – and that’s pretty much all it took for them to be sold on Yosemite.

After a brief break, we continued up the trail with the final objective for the day, Nevada Fall, looming in the distance ahead.

The upper portion of the Mist Trail is essentially one long staircase, much of it in direct line of sight with Nevada Fall – but since the spray from this fall blows in the opposite direction, it’s not nearly as cold as the section below Vernal Fall.

Staircases gradually turn to switchbacks, but by this time we were close enough to the top that excitement seemed to override fatigue pretty easily for all of our kids.

At the top of Nevada Fall, we once again had the whole rock to ourselves, which made for a perfect lunch spot after a few hours of climbing. It was also a nice opportunity for my daughter to model the CamelBak pack she was testing; I’ll have a full review here in the next week or two, but suffice it to say we were both very pleased with it.

There are two ways to descend from the top of Nevada Fall: via the John Muir Trail, which is the thin line of snow that’s barely visible at right-center in the photo above, or to retrace our steps down the Mist Trail. Luckily, we chose to stay out of the snow as much as possible on this hike … because unbeknownst to us, on the following day we’d see a ton of it.

Which is where we’ll pick up the story in Part 2 next time.

(UPDATED: Part 2 is here.)

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page

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Two Wordy 4/26/11, 5:14 AM  

Thanks! Love the pictures, and thank you for sharing your trip!

BB 4/26/11, 8:53 AM  


Carrie 4/26/11, 10:11 AM  

Incredible. One year our families should meet up at Yosemite- that would be FUN!

Anonymous,  4/16/13, 10:24 PM  

About to head up to Yosemite with my family for our annual trip and glad I ran across your post. It's the first year where my daughters (both 10) are eagerly expressing their desire to join the adults on one of the "hard" hikes. Thanks for sharing your story.

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