DESTINATION GUIDE: Yosemite National Park

by Pete Whittaker May/2017
This article has been read 12,276 times

On the west coast of America, in central California lies Yosemite National Park. The King of climbing destinations. Perhaps the most well-known climbing area in world. If you asked any climber if they have heard of Yosemite, would they say ‘yes’? Most likely. We could all sit here and scrutinise my judgement, debating whether the sport climbing of Spain, the boulders of Font, or the mountains of Patagonia are more well known and have better climbing. However in my opinion, nowhere quite holds all qualities like Yosemite. History, achievement and futuristic projects. Bouldering, routes and big walls. Weather, scenery and ease of location. It doesn’t matter if you are a total beginner or a seasoned big waller, because Yosemite will have something for you!

El Capitan, Yosemite, 238 kbEl Capitan, Yosemite
© ChrisJD, Oct 2006

"El Cap has got to be one of the best pieces of big rock on the planet, and I’ve seen a good few chunks of big rock (Greenland, Baffin, Pakistan, China, Patagonia). There are not so many Big Walls on the planet that have such great stable weather, which means you can really focus on the climbing."

Sean Villeneauva O'Driscoll - First Ascentionist of El Capitan's The Secret Passage

The first time you will ‘feel’ you have entered Yosemite Valley National Park, is when you reach the Park border. Here you will have to buy a pass. If you're staying for a long time, a yearly pass works out to be the cheapest and as an added bonus you can use this pass to get into America’s other National Parks, very useful for if you are doing an American road trip.

Alex Haslehurst on El Cap, 152 kb

Alex Haslehurst on El Cap, 156 kb

Even though there are three roads into the Valley, there are two ways that Yosemite will really greet you (as two of the roads join before you’ve really reached the jaw drop moment). These two roads are the El Portal road and Wawona (tunnel view) road. The Tunnel View, drops you down into Yosemite, then spits you out on a view which casts over Leaning Tower, El Capitan and then Half Dome, further up the valley. Whereas the road from El Portal pulls you in from below and has every tourist and climber craning their neck upwards to fit the scale of El Capitan into their vision. Each slightly different, but each an experience.

It’s hard to get a feel for how BIG the walls of Yosemite really are, but after you’ve picked out the tiny looking ants on El Capitan, then stomached the fact, that these are in fact people… you will have a good idea of scale.

So, the Climbing!

Yosemite offers a massive variety of climbing at both ends of the spectrum, however what The Valley really does well is ‘the easy access adventure’. You can step out your car and in 10 minutes be climbing on El Capitan. You can have topped out on a big wall, after days of toil and epic and two hours later be scoffing your face with pizza in the Half Dome Village. It’s convenient adventure!

Star trails above Half Dome, Yosemite, 143 kbStar trails above Half Dome, Yosemite
© Ice Nine, Mar 2012

Bouldering

One thing that you will realise when you start climbing on the granite, is that it is very slick due to the glacial erosion. Even if you have climbed lots on this type of granite in the past, when you haven’t climbed on it for a while, I always think its good to ‘get your eye in’. By this I mean get a feel for what the rock is like. What are you able to stand on? How well do those jams hold?

The best way to do this is to go bouldering. The Camp 4 boulders offers a great little circuit of problems to get you firing. Weave your way around and pick out what looks appetising a guidebook isn’t really necessary.

If bouldering is why you've come to Yosemite there are classics across the grade and genre. Bachar Cracker , King Cobra, Dominator and the most famous boulder in the world, Midnight Lightning, surely won’t disappoint.

If bouldering isn’t your forte, however you still want to get a ‘feel’ for the climbing then Swan Slabs is a generous starting point; low angled, short pitches and nice grades.

Single and multi pitch climbing

After a potter round and realising that your foot does in-fact stay on the glaciated smear, its time to up the ante. Longer single pitch climbs and shorter multi pitch climbs are next.

Cookie cliff is a great 1 and 2 pitch crag, although I’ve always found the grades to be quite tough here, so maybe opt a little lower then you normally would on your first couple of visits.

The base of El Cap also offers some superb routes, which will wet your appetite for the main event above. Be very careful cragging at the base of El Cap. There is a big cliff above you and you’re not the only person climbing on it. It’s very common for people to drop all sort of things from up there, whilst living on the wall. Gear, rocks and sometimes the odd poo bag, all which could kill you. No one wants to die from being hit by poo, as that would (literally)…. be shit. Make sure you wear a helmet.

Longer multi pitch climbs for a slightly more challenging day can be found on buttresses all over The Valley. A good selection (across the grade range) that should keep you busy are Serenity Crack/Sons of Yesterday link, Regular North Face Route ("The Rostrum") and Astroman. If you could do any two in a day, then you’d be really cooking!

Big Days Out

Your head and body should now be in gear, will have felt some exposure and be used to moving faster. Stop looking for those hidden crags and buttresses and look towards the bigger features; the ones that everyone comes to look at. The features that make Yosemite what Yosemite is; Royal Arches, Sentinel, Half Dome and El Cap. Those are what you have to climb!

Big days out are what Yosemite is all about. Getting up at 4 in the morning, having a full on, fun, beautiful day out, then dragging your broken body back into Camp 4 at midnight and being so tired you’ve fallen asleep before you’ve made it into the sleeping bag.

Routes such as Royal Arches/Crest Jewel, Steck / Salathe, Snake Dyke and the East Buttress of El Cap should all do the job. Not hard enough I hear you ask? Well link two or three of them together, that should spice things up a bit.

"There is no place in the world that has extremely wild terrain and is amazingly accessible. I love that."

Hans Florine - Holds The Nose speed record at 2 hours 23 minutes and 46 seconds

Alex Haslehurst contemplating life on a big wall, 155 kbAlex Haslehurst contemplating life on a big wall
© Rob Greenwood

Big Walling

You should now be able to tolerate your climbing partner for longer then just a normal day at the crag and have a good idea of what a long hard day out climbing is like. It’s time to go big walling and put all your UK practice time of aid climbing, hauling systems and portaledge setup, into good use. Big walling in Yosemite comes in two main disciplines; aid climbing and free climbing and the most popular routes require a bit of both to be successful.

If you don’t fancy jumping straight in at the deep end, a good way to start big walling is to do mini big walls. By this I mean things that you might be able to squeeze into a huge day, however you can spread it into 2 or 3 shorter days and practice some systems. Washington Column and Leaning Tower are good for this.

Happy Hour on El Cap Tower, 232 kbHappy Hour on El Cap Tower
© EddieBauer, Sep 2009

In terms of big multi day big walls, El Capitan is where it's at - however if you fancy off the beaten track, Mt Watkins could be the place for you.

The Nose is the most popular starting point, and you’ll know about it as its often heaving with parties. If you prefer a little more peace, the slightly harder Triple Direct can be a good alternative. Lurking Fear, Salathe Wall and Zodiac are also classics and a good first Big Wall. If those were too easy The Shield, Tangerine Trip or Mescalito should be a bit more challenging.

If you’re looking to free climb the ever more popular Freerider seems to be the way to go. It’s the easiest free climb up El Cap, however to be successful make sure you’ve polished up on your crack climbing before setting off. If you’re looking for something slightly harder, El Nino seems to suit the Brits as there are less cracks!

"Yosemite is the perfect big wall climbing destination for a punter like me. Why go to all the bother of humping your loads into some remote subarctic wasteland when you can hop out of your car and saunter up to El Cap - one of the world's greatest big walls - in minutes? Both the weather and the granite are splitter, the scene is chill, and you'll find yourself chatting with some of the world's best climbers."

Pass the Pitons Pete - Climbed El Cap via 56 different routes and spent 702 nights on the wall

Pete Whittaker rope-soloing Freerider, 247 kbPete Whittaker rope-soloing Freerider
© Dustin Moore


Logistics

When do I go?

Like many locations the best times to go for climbing is Spring and Autumn. Winter can be very cold and summer time can be unbearably hot. When you’re busting a ball on a Wall, why make yourself suffer more than is necessary?

April, May, September, October, November are the times to go. If you are planning to aid climb you can probably be a bit more flexible with your timings and slightly hotter temperatures shouldn't be too much of a hindrance, if you are able to carry enough water. However if you are planning on free climbing, those slimy smears and polished pin scars can become a whole world of infuriation in the late May and September heat.

How do I get there?

The best way to get to Yosemite is to either fly to San Francisco or Las Vegas. The easiest and most simple option is to then hire a car. From San Fran you have a 4 hour drive, and from Las Vegas 8 hours. However hiring a car can be expensive and once in The Valley, it is possible to stay there without one. Public transport can be taken from San Francisco to Merced. From Merced a Yosemite bus (YARTS) can be taken all the way into the Valley. Once in The Valley you can then use the shuttle buses to get around.

Where do I stay?

If you are not short on cash The Lodge offers rooms and If you are really 5* The Majestic Hotel can put you up. However, staying one night in these places will likely bankrupt most climbers so its not really an option.

There are 3 other options.

Camping:

From May 1st to September 15th you are only allowed to camp for 7 nights. After this, camping is limited to 30 days per calendar year. There are a couple of different campsites in Yosemite, the most popular for climbers being Camp 4. Then there’s The Pine’s Campground further up The Valley.

Campground space can’t be pre booked and in popular climbing season expect a difficult time getting a space. If you plan to get a space on Camp 4, all I can say is join the morning queue as early as possible. I say ‘join’, as more then likely there will be someone more keen than you, and you won’t be first!

Don’t expect to live extravagantly in Camp 4. There is a men’s and women’s toilet block and one fresh water tap to share between the whole campsite. No showers. No dish washing basins.

Campervan:

If you have a camper van (or car) to sleep in, there is the option of driving into The Valley to climb and then out of the Valley to sleep. Sleeping in your car or van in a lay-by in Yosemite will likely end in you getting woken up and fined.

Wall Living:

The cheapest best way to sleep in The Valley is ‘On the Wall’. It’s free of charge, you don’t need permits, and you can stay as many nights as you want. Also, sleeping on the wall means you’ll be climbing! which is why you’re there right? So its a win win situation all round.


Travelling/climbing by yourself?

Got no friends? Or they all think you’re intolerable on a big wall? No problem. The great thing about Yosemite is that you can always find people to climb with. There are always posts on the Camp 4 notice board asking for climbing partners and if there isn’t, there is usually a crew you can join in with for the day. Don’t be shy, Americans in Yosemite are psyched!

What's the scoff like?

Away from campsite cooking, the best places to eat are The Food Court and The Pizza Deck. Nothing really beats topping out on a Big Wall, so hungry you feel as though you might gnar your own arm off, then heading down to The Pizza Deck to demolish a 12 slicer. It certainly feels well deserved. I personally think the park service should be less fussy on camping permits and start fining the people who don’t have a pizza after every big wall.

Where can I buy gear and food?

There is a climbing shop in Half Dome Village, which sells anything you need to replace after you’ve dropped it from pitch 20.

If you have a car the best thing to do is do a ‘big shop’ outside of Yosemite and get all the basics. things that will keep. Fresh things can be bought in Yosemite, but beware everything is extortionately priced. That $20 that bought a big basket of grub outside The Valley, will leave you walking away from the Yosemite store with a cube of cheese thinking you’ve been robbed.

What else is there apart from the climbing?

Yosemite is amazing for scenery, seeing The Valley from different angles and view points is a must.

Sequoia National Park is very close by to Yosemite, if you want to see some impressively big trees, head there. Aside from climbing, walking (or ‘hiking dude’), and sight seeing - more normal Saturday afternoon activities can be found in Oakhurst, such as a cinema.

Which guide should I get?

For single and multi pitch climbing - Rock Climbing Yosemite Valley or Yosemite Valley Free Climbs

For Big Walling - Yosemite Big Walls

For Bouldering - Yosemite Valley Bouldering by Matt Wilder

Showering and living?

As there are no showers in Camp 4 the best place to go is Half Dome Village. At popular times there will be somebody on the desk and you’ll have to pay $5. However they are open at all hours, so if you go at a less convenient time, you are more than likely to get a free shower.

Clothes washing can be done at House Keeping in the laundrette. You are best off taking your own washing powder, as on more then one occasion, I’ve put my money into the detergent vending machine and nothing has come out.

Communication back home?

You can get phone signal in The Valley and even in some places on El Cap, so calling back home isn’t a problem. Wifi however is a new conundrum every time I go. There are different rules, logins and passwords from when I arrive to when I leave and the best thing to do here is to ask around. Basically its a bit of a nightmare.

Photo Gallery

El Capitan, Yosemite

El Capitan, Yosemite
© ChrisJD

Following roof pitch, Salathe Wall

Following roof pitch, Salathe Wall
© duncan

Royal Arches & Morning Mist, Yosemite Valley

Royal Arches & Morning Mist, Yosemite Valley
© ChrisJD

Copying Alex

Copying Alex
© markalmack

Andrew Sandercock looking up for the belay of pitch 7 on the Nose, as the weather worsens on El Cap.

Andrew Sandercock looking up for the belay of pitch 7 on the Nose, as the weather worsens on El Cap.
© Alexandre Buisse

Thank God ledge traverse

Thank God ledge traverse
© DuncanR

Free soloing high on Salathe

Free soloing high on Salathe
© markalmack

All alone on the Nose of The Captain

All alone on the Nose of The Captain
© ChrisJD

Half Dome & Royal Arches, Yosemite Valley

Half Dome & Royal Arches, Yosemite Valley
© ChrisJD

Sunrise on The Nose

Sunrise on The Nose
© TP

Midway through the crux on 'on the lamb' - Tuolomne meadows

Midway through the crux on 'on the lamb' - Tuolomne meadows
© Ed F

A cold and wet Stefan Jacobsen rappelling down the Nose after an unexpected storm hit.

A cold and wet Stefan Jacobsen rappelling down the Nose after an unexpected storm hit.
© Alexandre Buisse

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Pete Whittaker

Forums ( Read more )

Related posts

Staff Picks

Oct 2003

thumb Should guidebooks have no stars or more stars? In this feature Bob Wightman, editor of the CC's Tremadog guide, puts the case for... Read more

What's Hot Right Now

9 Aug 2017

thumb On 3rd June, Alex Honnold stunned the climbing and non-climbing world alike into awed silence with his solo ascent of Freerider... Read more

Top Spot: Climbing Destination

Aug 2012

thumb Tim Neill looks at the Peuterey Integral, Mont Blanc. "It's possibly the ultimate ridge climb in the Alps and a good way to... Read more