The Tunnel View,
Yosemite Falls, and the
4 - 11 miles (6.5 - 18 km), depending on how much of each hike you finish
This itinerary takes you past Yosemite's four most famous waterfalls. It's best to do this one in the spring or early summer, when the high Sierra snowpack is still melting and the waterfalls are at their peak.
This tour will definitely make for a full day, but it's not a superhuman task. You can always skip parts of it if you're running out of time or energy. I've hit the Mist Trail, the last leg of this tour, as late as 3 PM and still made it back to Curry Village before dark, those this requires hiking at a brisk pace. If you're not in fabulous shape or you want to dawdle and enjoy the scenery (an excellent approach), visit Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls in the morning and get to the Mist Trail, the most strenuous part of your day, by one o'clock or earlier.
Stop 1: The Tunnel
If you're entering Yosemite through the southern entrance, the Tunnel View will give you your first glimpse of Bridalveil Fall. If you're entering Yosemite from another direction and you haven't seen the tunnel overlook before, it's worth detouring to see. It's just over a mile (about 2 km) up the hill from the Bridalveil Fall turnout. The Tunnel View is impossible to miss: if you're approaching from the south, it's the turnout on your left just after you go through the tunnel; if you're approaching from Yosemite Valley, it's the turnout just before you go through the tunnel. Drive slowly through this area; the view is a big distraction to pedestrians and other drivers.
Bridalveil Fall is one of the first stops at the western edge of Yosemite Valley. If the parking lot is full, park along the shoulder of the road valleywards from the parking lot; there's a trail here that leads back to the falls, and you certainly won't be worse off for taking this route instead. Think of walking the length of a Walmart parking lot, except that you're hiking through Yosemite Valley instead, with immense conifers on either side and a bonus crossing of a pretty stone bridge over Bridalveil Creek. Also, it should be pointed out, there will be no actual Walmarts within 50 miles of you.
Stop 3: The Swinging Bridge
From Bridalveil Fall, drive into Yosemite Valley until you reach the Swinging Bridge parking lot. Park here and walk out onto the bridge; you'll get an excellent view of Yosemite Falls from here. If you're feeling ambitious, you can cross the bridge and continue along the trail past Yosemite Lodge to the lower Yosemite Falls trailhead, just over a mile ahead, or hike the entire Sentinel/Cook's Meadow loop.
Lower Yosemite Falls
If you didn't hike directly to the Yosemite Falls trailhead from the Swinging
Bridge, you can catch the free valley shuttle to the Yosemite Falls trailhead or
park in the day use lot down the road and walk through Yosemite Village to get
to the trailhead. However you get there, the lower Yosemite Falls trail is short
and easily worth the walk.
Stop 5: The Mist Trail
From Yosemite Falls, head to the Mist Trail, which is at the eastern edge of
Yosemite Valley. You can catch a free shuttle bus directly to the trailhead, or
you can park at Curry Village and walk an extra .75 miles (1.2 km) to get there.
The Mist Trail has three natural turnaround points, and you can choose any of them depending on how tired you are or how late it's getting. Unlike the Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls trails, which are mostly flat, each segment of the Mist Trail involves some significant climbing, so if you're not in great shape, you may want to wait and see how you feel as you reach various points along the trail.
The first stop on the Mist Trail is at the Vernal Fall Bridge, a mile (1.6 km) from the trailhead. This bridge offers a view upstream of the Merced River and Vernal Fall, although the view of the fall is getting gradually obscured by trees.
From the Vernal Fall Bridge, it's another 0.7 steep but spectacular miles (1.1 km) to the top of Vernal Fall, where you can look down on the fall, then sit beside the Emerald Pool and dry out (not for nothing is it called the Mist Trail).
From the top of Vernal Fall, it's another 1.8 miles (3.4 km) to the top of Nevada Fall. Although the trail continues on from there to Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, this is the turnaround point for the Mist Trail. You can either return the way you came or swing right and return via the John Muir Trail, which meets the Mist Trail again just above the Vernal Fall Bridge. The Muir Trail includes a memorable view looking back to Nevada Fall; you should see it if you've got time.
Most hikers on the Mist Trail turn back after reaching the top of Vernal Fall.
If you continue to the top of Nevada Fall, you won't have it all to yourself,
but you should find things far less crowded.