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.
On average, about four million people visit Yosemite every year, with the majority spending their time hiking in the 18 km2 valley, but a small fraction head to El Capitan to take on the ultimate climbing challenge.
You may well have seen ‘El Cap’ gain notoriety recently in the media.
On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold bravely completed the first free solo climb of El Capitan, without any protective equipment, wires or ropes. He ascended the Freerider line in just under four hours, starting at 5:30 am and reaching the peak just before 9:30am.
The prep, practice sessions and climb were filmed and put together in the documentary film Free Solo, released in 2018.
For experienced rock climbers, El Capitan is certainly an alluring destination.
Labelled the World’s hardest climb by various professionals and publications, the wall of almost entirely vertical stone dominates Yosemite National Park and has long bewitched the climbing community.
For this reason, the decision to climb should not be taken lightly. More than 100 climbing accidents occur every year in Yosemite and El Cap should be treated with respect and every climb should be carefully planned.
Five people have died in climbing accidents on El Capitan since 2013. 31 of the 120 climbers who have died in the park since 1905 have died on the famous granite monolith.
- Climbers from all over the world come to challenge its demanding routes.
- Working your way up the sheer rock face offers views over the National Park and unrivaled sense of achievement and camaraderie.
Fly into San Francisco and then 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.
Depending on your route, weather conditions and athletic ability, climbing the rock face can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
While speed climbers can reach the top of El Capitan in a few hours, most people choose not to hurry. If you belong to the latter group, you will most likely spend a few days doing it and will therefore need a place to sleep or relax.
The average party takes around four days to make their way up, hauling up hundreds of pounds worth of gear, food and water for each member.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
Rock climbing up the side of El Capitan is extremely difficult. Ensuring you have dry weather and the correct gear are paramount to safety and success. As mentioned, most of the climb is almost vertical with some sections sloping backwards.
Since 1997 the American Safe Climbing Association has replaced more than 800 bolts in Yosemite and there is extensive advice online around how to build the best route to suit your abilities.
Fitness and strength are also key, and you should take the climb as slowly as suits your ability.
There are many El Capitan base routes to hone your aid skills and get you familiar with Yosemite granite. No matter what route you are climbing, you need basic free climbing and aid climbing skills before even setting foot in the Valley.
The best preparation involves training in both a climbing gym, local outdoor faces and then also some shorter climbs on arrival in the park.
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.
Free wilderness permits are required year-round for backpacking or any other overnight stays in the Yosemite Wilderness. However, typically, wilderness permits are not required for nights spent on the wall.
Guided or Self-Guided
Climbs up the face of El Cap are typically self-guided, whether going solo or as part of a bigger group. This said, huge amounts of preparation and planning should go into which route you will climb, how and when.
Yosemite has some of the best weather of any climbing area in the world. Having said this, storms have been known to sweep into the valley at short notice.
Climbers should always be prepared for the worst on big walls by bringing adequate bivy gear, particularly if planning to climb the wall over multiple days.
The best times to climb are in the spring and fall. Although the summer offers dry climbing condition and long daylight hours, being in the direct heat will sap the energy out of you as you climb. In the winter, the Valley empties of both tourists and climbers but can also bring wet and severe Sierra storms.
The best time to climb is between May and August. From the middle of May through to June, the weather is perfect and almost every route is dry but there are big crowds both in the Valley and on the walls.
In July and August the Valley is still crowded with tourists, but the walls are uncrowded. The lower half of the climb will be pretty warm at this time of year though so be prepared with plenty of extra water.
At any given time from spring to fall, there are dozens of climbers making their way up one the established routes.
Over 70 big wall routes have been established on El Cap’s Southwest and Southeast faces, though most of these are variations connecting two or more of the most common and established routes. They are all graded by difficulty and this should be taken into account whilst building your route to the summit. Some of the most popular routes are:
- The Nose – Considered by many to be the best rock climb in the world.
- Salathé Wall – Almost as classic and slightly harder than the The Nose but offering many memorable pitches and ledges.
- Lurking Fear – One of the more moderate and shorter routes on El Capitan. The first half requires mostly aid climbing and the second half requires mostly free climbing.
- Zodiac – The most moderate route on El Capitan’s overhanging southeast face and offering spectacular exposure (but check the weather first) and easy hauling.
In terms of getting down, you can head to the East Ledges descent, a sloping ramp visible from the Valley floor. The descent down the ramp, requires a mix of hiking, “down-climbing” and rappelling.
This is a tricky off-trail route and should only be attempted by expert climbers. Other options are to come down the hiking trail as mentioned above.
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.
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!
|Difficulty||4/5 - 5/5|
|Starts at||California, USA|
|Finishes at||California, USA|
|Length of route||1 - 1.2Km|
|Average time to complete||1 - 4 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||No|
|Highest point||914 metres|
|Countries visited||United States|