On previous visits, Edward and Shanti Johnson, dancers with the Southern California Dance Theatre in Long Beach, posed in the popular corner. But on this day, with baby daughter Makhana, they took their vacation photo yards away in the center of dry rock.
“We talked about how more people have died on this trail than any other in the park,” said Shanti, 37. “And when I showed Makhana the river — I know she’s only 7 months old, she can’t understand me but, still — I told her ‘Beautiful water. Look at the pretty water. But remember, we stay behind the rail.’ ”
A few yards away, Alex Rodriguez, 21, sat with a church group from Van Nuys. Many were trembling and exhausted; one girl was in tears. Rodriguez looked entranced, gazing at the river.
“At first I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be here. It kind of felt like no one was supposed to be here. But after a while you get used to it,” he said.
He said the water looked tempting, but he would never consider swimming.
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “It’s like common sense.”
Though four of the recent deaths have been from city church groups, Pride Metcalf, one of this group’s leaders, said it was good to introduce young people who had never been out of the suburbs to nature.
“Look, they live in neighborhoods with drive-bys. Their world can be rather small. We bring them up to these vistas to show them they have options,” he said. “And we tell them in graphic detail what can happen when you don’t follow rules in the wilderness.”
For the bulk of the crowd, the top of Vernal was as far as they would go. But the trail led on, past Emerald Pool on the “step” between two waterfalls. The Park Service strongly advises visitors against even wading in this spot, yet on a hot day some swimmers still take their chances against the current.