The first two (of many) gems you’ll pass while walking the John Muir Trail come quickly. Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall are visible almost from the beginning of your trek (assuming you are hiking southbound), and they are both lovely at any time of year. They are spectacular in the spring and summer after a winter with above average snowfall. Both are part of the Merced River, the source of which lies in the Yosemite backcountry.
The JMT crosses the Merced on a bridge that gives you a view of Vernal Fall from below, and a few miles later the trail crosses another bridge just a few yards from the precipice off which Nevada Fall plunges. The wide expanse of granite you will encounter just short of the bridge near Nevada Fall makes a terrific spot for the first long break of your hike. There is even some shade available. (On a word-nerd note, both appear on most maps as “fall,” not “falls.” You will almost always see Yosemite Falls, on the other hand, because there are two separate, upper and lower sections.)
Vernal Fall. Vernal Fall was named in 1851 by Lafayette Bunnell, a commander of the Mariposa Battalion. “The Vernal Fall I so named because of the cool, vernal spray in contrast at midday with the summer heat, reminding me of an April shower, and because of the blue grass curiously growing among dark rocks and gay, dripping flowers, making it an eternal April to the ground.”
It falls 317 feet and, unlike its upstream companion, is considered a plunge fall, where the water loses complete contact with the rock behind it. If you would like to take an alternate route past Vernal Fall to Nevada Fall, the Mist Trail offers one. You will encounter the intersection not long after crossing the Merced for the first time. It’s a bit shorter than the JMT, but more strenuous. I prefer – and recommend – sticking to the JMT.
Nevada Fall. Also named by Bunnell in 1851, Nevada Fall “was so called because it was the nearest to the Sierra Nevada, and because the name was sufficiently indicative of a wintry companion for our spring (Vernal Fall). The white, foaming water, as it dashed down Yo-wy-we from the snowy mountains, represented to my mind a vast avalanche of snow.” (Yo-wy-we was the Indian name, allegedly meaning squirming fall.)
Nevada Fall is nearly twice as high as Vernal at 594 feet, but is classified as a horsetail fall, because the water maintains contact with the rock behind for most of its descent. The bridge over the Merced is a few yards from the edge of the waterfall and the view from that span is about as dramatic as you would expect.
There will be many memorable sights after you leave these first two gems behind, but none more impressive.
Good hiking, Ray