El Capitan Trail
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El Capitan Trail
United States

El Capitan, also known as El Cap, is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, located on the North side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end.

The granite rock face is about 3,000 feet (914 metres) from base to summit along its tallest face, and is a popular objective for rock climbers. El Capitan is Spanish for The Captain or The Chief and is fitting given its domineering position and size amongst all the rock faces in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park is located in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California, USA. The valley stretches for almost 12 kilometres with approximately 1,200 kilometres of hiking trails and is home to over 300 species of mammals. On average, about four million people visit Yosemite every year, with the majority spending their time in the 18 km2 valley.

You may well have seen ‘El Cap’ gain notoriety recently in the media. In 2017 Alex Honnold bravely completed the first free solo climb of El Capitan, without any protective equipment, wires or ropes. It also has a controversial history regarding BASE jumping, with Yosemite National Park having to invoke criminal regulations that prohibit the practice.

Although it is popular with rock-climbers and thrill-seekers, it is also possible to hike to the summit.  El Capitan Trail is a moderately trafficked return trail within Yosemite Valley that features beautiful wild flowers and is generally classed as a strenuous hike.

This trail is often overlooked as a one-day hike due to its length and difficulty, but its jaw dropping views over Yosemite Valley and Half Dome are well worth it.

Highlights
  • Stunning views of Taft Point, Dewey Point, Half Dome, Clouds Rest and North Dome as well as green valley below.
  • The beauty of the granite monolith and the surrounding views are so outstanding that Mac named their operating system after it and used El Capitan as display images.
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About the route
  • Travel

Fly into San Francisco and then you can take either a private tour bus or coach to the National Park or jump onto one of the Amtrak trains.

Once you’re in the National Park, depending on where you’re staying and whether you’ve rented a car, you can drive yourself or jump on a bus to El Capitan, park up and start your trek or climb from there.

  • Length

The El Capitan trail can be done as a there-and-back trip in 10 to 12 hours, meaning it can be accomplished as a day hike. However, you will need to set off early and make sure you are descending by 3pm to ensure you’re back down by sunset.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

The hike to the summit of El Capitan is relatively tough in terms of day hikes. Good walking boots are a must and poles are recommended.

The first five kilometres are difficult as there are only rocks and rock stairs, and these will be equally tough on the way down after nine or so hours. The switchbacks are further up are also hard work, but trekking poles will help to take some of the strain off your legs.

  • Experience

No trekking experience is required as such, but as mentioned it is worth having an adequate level of fitness and experience of long walks before attempting the climb to the top of El Capitan. The hike is long and strenuous through some remote terrain, making it unsuitable for casual tourists who are not in good hiking shape.

Those with no or low levels of fitness should consider doing some basic fitness and hill training before heading to Yosemite or explore the various other treks and trails around the park.

  • Permits

Once you have purchased your pass for the Yosemite National Park, you are free to explore all trails in the area.

Even though it is very popular and somewhat famous, there is no need to purchase any additional permits or pay entry fees for El Cap.

There is no cost specifically for the El Capitan trek but entry to Yosemite National Park is $15 USD (around £12) per person. If driving in, the cost per car is $35 USD (£28) and camper vans are slightly more as well as a fee for camp site use.

Free wilderness permits are required year-round for backpacking or any other overnight stays in the Yosemite Wilderness. A wilderness permit is not required for day hikes.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

The El Capitan trail can easily be done self-guided route and there path to follow.  The last kilometre or so to the top of El Cap are poorly marked with no signage, so you will need to pay attention during this section to avoid getting lost.

best time to walk

The best times to visit Yosemite are May and September, when the park is accessible but not too crowded. The trail up to the top of El Capitan offers the best trekking conditions from late May through until October or early November, depending on snow levels. The track is closed in winter (December through until May) due to the access road up to the trail head at Tamarack Flat Campground being shut.

Park up or jump off the bus as directed and start on the Yosemite Falls trailhead and work your way up. Depending on the season and how much snow has melted, Yosemite Falls can be anywhere from a dribble to a huge flow.

Starting at Tamarack Flat Campground the first five kilometres are on an old, disused road which gradually weaves through a pine forest. The El Capitan trail is mostly through forest and you will need mosquito repellent for most of the year as a result. The trail soon turns into a moderately steep uphill path opening up into a more exposed terrain before descending back into forest.

You can see El Capitan through the trees before you walk around and up onto the exposed summit. As you reach the top you’ll be able to hear (but not see) the rock climbers making their way up the sheer rock face. The trail flattens out near the top and there is a makeshift stone bench that makes for the perfect lunch spot.

The return journey is simply retracing your route back to the Tamarack Flat Campground.

Although El Capitan has jaw-dropping views from the top, if you’re looking for a little extra challenge you can trek the additional couple of kilometres up to Eagle Peak. The view from here is simply unbeatable and only adds around an hour to your overall round trip. To extend even further from Eagle Peak it is possible to hike down to the valley floor via the Upper Yosemite Falls trail.

There are plenty of other less strenuous routes available in the valley but this offers some of the best views and changing scenery along the way.

Accommodation

There are plenty of options in terms of where to stay within Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley represents only one percent of the park area, but this is where most visitors arrive and stay.

The best way to explore the National Park is to stay in one of the accommodation options within the park. These vary massively and range from private cabins or upscale hotel options right through to unheated pre-erected tents. You can also choose to bring your own camping equipment or camper van and pitch up at one of the designated camping spots.

Virtually all of the accommodation options have their own facilities including dining, a small shop, showering and even pools.

The lodges in particular tend to fill up fast, especially during spring and early summer. There are also multiple hotels and lodges on the park fringe and nearby towns have easy park access. Nearby towns include Jamestown, Sonora, Grovetown, Oakhurst, Fresno and Madera.

If you are planning on doing the odd trail here and there over the course of a week and would prefer more dining and activity options than what’s available in the park then staying in a nearby town is your best option. However, for more flexibility around what time you go to and from the park then you will need to hire a car.

Visitor facilities are located in the centre of the valley, including a handful of small shops, the deli, educational centre and other amenities. There is a regular bus that does a loop of the valley that you can hop on and off at various trails and accommodation.

What to do

Within Yosemite National Park, there are vast areas to explore. As well as the various trails around the valley floor and sections within, there are also several trails that lead out of the Valley, including:

– The John Muir Trail – running 340 kilometres to Mount Whitney

– The Mist Trail – with views of Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall

– The Four Mile Trail – leading to Glacier Point

– The Yosemite Falls Trail – to the top of Yosemite Falls

You can also go and see the infamous giant sequoias, which grow up to 90 metres tall and are truly mind-blowing. These can be accessed via the boardwalks of the Mariposa Grove but if you want to avoid the crowds there are two other slightly smaller groves nearby.

Go wildlife spotting around the park and keep a look out for the native black bears and then have an evening back in the valley, trying out ice skating in Half Dome Village. If you have kids (or even if you don’t!) it’s well-worth signing up for a tour or ranger-led activity to learn more about the history and geology of the park.

To access the park, you may well come in from and return to San Francisco. It’s definitely a good idea to tag on a few days in the city of fog to go exploring and see the sights.

Jump on a bike and cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge or relax and picnic down at Golden Gate Park. Ride the legendary cable car around the city, jumping off at Chinatown, Union Square, or to see (and smell) the seals down at Fisherman’s Wharf.

One of the most popular attractions not to be missed is Alcatraz. Jump on a ferry over to Alcatraz Island and take a guided tour of the notorious prison. If you’re feeling brave you can even do it at night or on Halloween!

Published: November 3, 2019 Modified: November 13, 2019

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At a glance
Skills RequiredHiking, Walking
Difficulty 3/5 - 5/5
Starts at El Capitan, California 95389, USA
Finishes at Upper Yosemite Falls, California 95389, USA
Length of route 30 - 50Km
Average time to complete 1 - 2 Days
Possible to complete sub-sectionsYes
Highest point 914 metres
Permit requiredNo
Equipment neededPoles if preferred, walking boots
Countries visited United States
Walk Map