Climbing in Yosemite

Yosemite Valley is famous for its big granite walls rising straight up from the valley floor. Their majestic beauty is admired by climbers and sightseers alike. A trip to Yosemite National Park will leave you in awe of these beautiful giants.

A couple of years ago we visited Yosemite Valley to see these famous walls for ourselves. While there, we couldn’t resist doing a few climbs.

The most famous climbs in Yosemite are multi-day routes on big walls. Climbers spend three or more days on the mountain. They sleep in bivys on small ledges or hang from the side of the wall. We had never done a multi-day climb on a big wall so instead we chose shorter routes, but still had a great Yosemite adventure.

El Capitan (El Cap) is a stunning granite wall rising over 900 m straight up from the valley floor. Our first glimpse of this massif was unexpected. Driving into the park we didn’t expect to see it so easily from the road. It was a magnificent surprise. In fact, Yosemite Valley is quite compact. We were surprised how close the iconic mountains are to the road and to each other.

Yosemite has a long history of climbing and the area is steeped in tradition. Park officials and climbers want to maintain the natural state of the rock as much as possible. Therefore there aren’t many permanent bolts since these need to be drilled into the rock and cause damage. Instead, climbers must use removeable cams and nuts for protection. This style of climbing is called trad (traditional) climbing.

We didn’t climb the famous El Cap route ‘The Nose’, but did climb a route that is just beside this steep wall on Ranger Rock. We’re not sure why but it’s also called Manure Pile Buttress. Thankfully, the rock was not a manure pile, but actually a great wall with a few perfect cracks to climb. On the climb we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Cathedrals on the other side of the valley and the more rugged side of El Cap right beside us. From the top, a large balcony gave us room to enjoy an amazing view of the valley including North Dome and Sentinel Rock. Climbing in Yosemite allowed us to see these giants from many different perspectives.

We have climbed granite many times in Canada and have found it to be very textured, almost sharp. After a weekend climbing in the Bugaboos, it seemed as though the cheese grater-like granite had scraped off our fingerprints. The granite in Yosemite though is very polished and the heat makes it very slippery. This makes the climbs a lot more difficult and scarier.

A little further down from Ranger Rock is a climbing crag called Five Open Books. The slippery granite crack took us by some incredible views of Half Dome as it stood proudly on its mound. It seemed to be beckoning us to climb it.

Half Dome is the most recognizable mountain in Yosemite. It looks exactly as its name implies. It’s a dome that is cut in half so that one side is a rounded dome, and the other a shear wall rising 1,460 m from the valley floor.

The climb that we did on Half Dome is called Snake Dike. It follows a strange feature that looks like a snake’s vertebrae slithering up the dome. It isn’t a difficult climb, but it is long, exposed and can be very windy. There are very few cracks in the rock so there is little opportunity to put in removeable protection. Because of this, there are a few permanent bolts and pitons. They are spaced far apart and many are very old and we weren’t sure how well they would hold if we fell. It would be a straight drop down the side of the mountain if we had an accident.

Snake Dike is a very popular climb so we arrived early and were glad to be the first in line. During our long morning of climbing we barely took time to look around. Finally, we arrived at the summit and were able to enjoy the view. We could see far down the valley over the tops of the other peaks. El Cap looked like a small ridge at the end of the valley.

After only seeing a few other climbing groups all morning, it seemed odd to be with hordes of tourists on the summit. There is a long staircase that they use to get up and down the mountain. We were very nervous to use it for our descent though because it’s very rickety and crammed full of people.

Glacier Point Apron has what is considered to be the best 5.6 climb in the valley. The Grack follows a slippery crack that gave us better and better views. From our angle we saw North Dome sitting high above the interesting features of the Royal Arches climbing area.

There are a lot of interesting rock features in Yosemite, many have popular climbs on them. Snake Dike is one. Another popular climb is The Royal Arches on the crag of the same name. It takes advantage of the different angles and fissures of the features that make good foot and hand holds. Like the arches, the climb follows an arc pattern as it ascends the wall.

Even if you don’t climb you can still find amazing views of these giants. The scenic Merced River has many great viewpoints. We were surprised that even though the park was very busy, we were still able to take a few quiet walks with no one else was around.

With so many waterfalls in Yosemite you’re sure to find your favourite. Vernal Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are tall cascades, dropping straight down from the top of rocky cliffs. We visited in early fall, so the water levels were meagre, but their settings were still picturesque.

Where to stay

Hotel accommodations inside the park range from tent cabins to luxurious rooms. Booking is managed by Yosemite Hospitality.

When booking a campsite in a Yosemite, you have to be very organized. On-line reservations are available as much as 4 months in advance and spots are taken quickly. I didn’t do much research before the on-line booking date and thought I’d be able to figure it out at the time. Within minutes of the site opening, most of the campsites were taken. As a result, we could only get a campsite outside of the valley in Hodgden Meadows. In the long run though we enjoyed staying here since it was higher and therefore a bit cooler. As well, it was far less busy. Our advice is to visit the on-line booking site, research the campsites and familiarize yourself with the booking program in advance of your booking date. 

Park Fees

Park passes can be purchased at the park gates. They offer a few different types of passes. Visit  https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/fees.htm to help determine the pass you need.

Coming Next: The Annapurna Circuit Trek (Part I) – The Road to Manang

For extra pictures from USA click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

If you like what you read, please comment or share (with credit) using the links below.

60 comments

  • After watching Valley Uprising, I instantly fell in love with Yosemite and its iconic rock face. I don’t have a head for heights (that’s why I have a tremendous respect for people who can easily
    climb on the big walls of the valley), and would most likely stick to hiking trails instead. The Half Dome Cable Hike would be a dream come true for me, but I would give climbing a go, too. Just to see what it’s like. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😊 Aiva

    Liked by 2 people

  • On our 2010 visit there, we could not believe the size of the mountains and waterfalls. Not at all like the way our Rockies were formed. We did quite a bit of hiking and often spotted sleeping platforms hanging from the face of El Capitan and were just thankful that we were not in such sleeping accommodations. Thanks for the memories and have a great week. Allan

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Allan, I can’t imagine that they get much sleep on those bivys. I don’t I’ll ever try it to see, even I’m not that adventurous! Thanks for reading, Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was a lot more impressive than we imagined, and definitely worth a trip. It’s very hot for hiking so go in the spring or fall. Thanks for reading!! Maggie

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  • I’m so glad you love Yosemite! It has a special meaning for my family because my Mum used to work there! We were rather upset when this advertising company changed all the classic names for things to make everything Yosemite this, or Yosemite that 🙄. I can’t think of a better reason to keep corporations out of national parks! I have a tip for accommodation. Get a hotel in Merced and drive in for the day. I know now you have to book accommodation in Yosemite a year in advance now, which sucks! With a hotel in Merced you can go any time

    Liked by 1 person

    • We did love Yosemite. Booking accommodation/campsite was a nightmare! I’ll look into Merced next time, thanks for the tip! I love that you spelled mum! You’re almost Canadian already!

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      • You’re welcome! I also grew up in England and we say and spell Mum there too. I like it better than Mom. Tbh, it can sound like a cow mooing! I got to Calgary a week ago and I’m halfway through quarantine. So far, so good and I already know I made the right decision moving here!

        Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you! Fortunately, my apartment is overheated! That saves me some time until I can get proper winter clothes after quarantine. I came the day before the snowfall hit, so I thought “Whew! That was lucky!”

            Liked by 1 person

      • Another thing I wanted to say is that it’s definitely inconvenient to book accommodation at Yosemite a year in advance, even if you go at a non-peak time. My parents and I planned to take a winter trip to Yosemite once and then I got appendicitis! It really helped that we didn’t have accommodation at Yosemite then. A friend of mine gave me the tip I gave you about getting a hotel in Merced and it’s really the best thing you can do if you find Yosemite’s bookings inconvenient

        Liked by 1 person

  • I would love to go, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be good/fast enough climber – I’ve heard people queue to climb the same routes. I don’t know if you mentioned, but did you go in the summer or autumn?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We went in early September which was still too early. It was hot and the rock was very slippery. There weren’t as many climbers there since it’s not summer holidays and not fall climbing season where the rock is better so we didn’t have many line ups. Snake Dike was the busiest. We had about 5 groups behind us, but thankfully the group behind us was very slow so we didn’t feel rushed. We did easy routes for our first time there because we didn’t know what to expect and we still loved it. You should definably go, there are all levels of climbers, but it’s almost all trad.

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  • During my visit to Yosemite, I saw these walls from the valley and naively I could hardly imagine that they could be climbed, first for the difficulty then to preserve them. I then learned that it was possible and I am happy to read articles like yours that make the adventure come alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, climbing in Yosemite was amazing. Those giant walls are so impressive so I’m really glad we were able to climb there and bring the adventure to you!

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  • Your timing, with the fall colours looks to be perfect. Love your opening photo. I suspect there’s rarely a quiet time in this beautiful park…winter maybe, but then climbing/hiking would be limited. It’s one of those must-visit places with so much mystique surrounding it. I can’t get Alex Honnold’s climb out of my mind! I hope to get there one of these days and see that rock face with my own eyes..
    Crazy how that staircase on the descent was perhaps just as treacherous as your climb up on Snake Dike. Rickety stairs with lots of people scare me too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We had seen so many documentaries about Yosemite before we went and thought we knew what to expect, but those giant walls were so much more impressive in person. We thought of Honnold or Tommy Caldwell every time we drove by El Cap and were in awe of what they do. I think there have been a few accidents on the Half Dome stairs too,they’re scary.

      Liked by 1 person

  • The first photo of El Cap reminds me of the Devil’s Tower: tall and steep. There were some climbers there when we visited few years ago.
    You actually did quite few climbs in Yosemite, congratulations! I get dizzy only when I imagine being on the top LOL The views are spectacular, my favourite one is from The Half Dome summit😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t been to Devil’s Tower, but El Cap is an impressive tall, steep wall of granite so Devil’s Tower must be too. We were glad we were able to do so much climbing. It’s always unnerving to climb in a place you’ve never been. Half Dome was definitely the highlight of the trip. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yosemite is incredibly busy, but it’s so stunning that you can forget about the crowds. We definitely prefer it to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon but haven’t been to Arches yet. I think it has a different kind of beauty, we hope to go someday.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Wow now that’s some serious climbing! Would love to get to Yosemite to do some camping…and admire those rock formations…from the ground 🙂 I watched the movie Free Solo and am amazed at how anyone can climb those rocks with or without ropes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Climbing in Yosemite was incredible, but nothing like Honnold in Free Solo. We had ropes and did very easy climbs in comparison. There are great views from the valley floor so it would definitely be a great holiday, but go in the spring or fall, it’s blistering hot otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Well done!

    I have to say, this place feels a little bit like New York. I’ve never been to either (well, I’ve spent 3 days around JFK but it was for work) but somehow it feels as if I’ve already seen them. I guess it’s down to Valley Uprising, Free Solo, The Dawn Wall… did you see any dirtbag dirt-bagging around?

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

    • We saw so many mountain films about Yosemite too, but were still in awe of the big walls. Unfortunately we went too early and it was still hot and slippery on the granite. The dirtbags come later in the fall when it’s cooler. We didn’t realize what a difference it would make on the granite there. I would have loved to watch some of them climb.

      Liked by 1 person

  • What incredible photos of an awesome place. Yosemite is such a special place isn’t it? I visited many many years ago and will never forget the amazing views and spectacular scenery. Great post brought back so many memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yosemite is one of our top places in the US. It’s incredible that these massive walls are in such a tight valley. It’s easy to see much of the park without even leaving the valley floor. You should keep it on your list when you travel to the US. I thought of you when I heard about the earthquake in Turkey. You’re safe then I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I still can’t believe I’ve never been to Yosemite. What’s wrong with me?!?! Gorgeous pics. I did my first rock climbing in Outward Bound in my early 20s and only once or twice since then. I suffer from what is probably a common problem among infrequent climbers: it looks so fun and relatively easy from the ground, then I get 5 feet off the ground and start to get Elvis leg!! Still, I’d do it anytime the opportunity presented itself (with a trained guide, that is).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yosemite is (so far) our favourite place in the US. We haven’t been to Bryce Canyon/Zion and that whole area though, so maybe that will change. After seeing so many documentaries on Yosemite, it was a dream to actually climb there. I haven’t heard it called Elvis leg before 🙂 I too get ‘sewing-machine leg’ when I’m stuck at a tough move.

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  • Congratulations on an amazing trip and several quality, successful climbs. What a special and spectacular place to visit and climb. There are so many climbing movies of this, to be able to actually climb some routes on these epic granite walls – impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, it was a dream come true to climb here. I felt like we were living in a Reel Rock film!! Yosemite was much more spectacular than we expected. We thought having seen so many docs it wouldn’t be very impressive, but we were wrong. Trip of a lifetime 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! That’s what I liked about your trip. You showed some sides of Yosemite that you don’t often see. Normally, all the focus is on The Nose, or whatever, but it was nice to see some of the other routes that gave you a great view of those impressive and iconic mountain faces.

        Liked by 1 person

  • I am in awe of this beautiful nature and of your climbing achievements! Reading your article reminded me of watching footage of Alex Honnold free-soloing El Capitan. I just kept thinking, how does one mentally prepare for this? Would love to visit Yosemite someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We love Yosemite, it’s much better than the docs make you think. At least we were much more impressed. Seeing those walls in person, I can’t imagine being on them without a rope!

      Liked by 1 person

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