Just as California’s coast is simpatico with world-class surfing, Yosemite Mariposa is paramount in the rock climbing galaxy. The region is endowed with epic terrain ranging from the riparian rock canyons of the Wild & Scenic Merced River to the smooth domes of Tuolumne Meadows and the titanic walls of Yosemite Valley.
And like surfing culture, Yosemite rock climbing appeals to outdoor lovers no matter their level of expertise. Whether your carabiner is clipped to a climbing harness, a messenger bag or a purse, it’s easy to embrace the sport. Here’s how to live la vida roca in Yosemite Mariposa!
Rock Climbing Hall of Fame
For nearly two centuries, from the days when pioneers scrambled up Sierra peaks to today’s elite athletes free soloing El Capitan, the glacier-carved granite walls and cliffs of Yosemite National Park have created an epic coliseum for rock climbing.
Yosemite climbing got off to a roaring start 20 years after the Gold Rush, when Sierra sage John Muir famously summited Cathedral Peak ““ ropeless ““ in 1869. Ever since, the titans of American rock climbing, from Anderson to Honnold and scores between ““ have gravitated to Yosemite for the world-class challenges of its spires, domes and big walls.
Female climbers share in the glory. An adventurous group of women famously ascended Mt. Lyell, the highest mountain in Yosemite National Park, in 1896. Sally Dutcher became the first woman to climb Half Dome in October 1875, accompanied by George Anderson and Galen Clark. She worked as an assistant to photographer Carleton Watkins in his gallery.
Lynn Hill is widely regarded as one of the leading climbers of all time, having made the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan ““ man or woman ““ in 1993. And in November 2020, Emily Harrington became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route up El Capitan in less than 24 hours.
Yosemite’s cornerstone status was advanced via literature in 1964 with the publication of A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley. Steve Roper’s treatise was the first collection of all the Valley routes, succinctly described per pitch, and established the Yosemite Decimal System as the standard for rating North American rock climbs. The YDS is still widely used today.
For a living history field trip, visit Camp 4 near Yosemite Falls. Camp 4 is renowned as the base camp for decades of Yosemite climbers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places for “its significant association with the growth and development of rock climbing in the Yosemite Valley during the ‘golden years’ of pioneer mountaineering.” In addition to serving as a public campground, Camp 4 is home to sundry climbing boulders, such as the formidable Midnight Lightning. It’s a great way to get up close and personal with the practice of hands on rock.
Visitors to Yosemite Mariposa can immerse in local rock climbing lore and legacy at the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum & Gallery. Featuring a priceless collection of historical climbing artifacts, art and photography from Yosemite and beyond, the museum is located in the town of Mariposa and celebrated its grand opening in 2022.
Join a Rock Tour
Like most sports with a technical edge, rock climbing can be enhanced in the company of a guide. Since 1969, the Yosemite Mountaineering School & Guide Service has guided climbers, hikers and backpackers in Yosemite. Today, they are the perfect resource to help you “learn the ropes” via half-day, full-day, multiple-day and customized climbing sessions. The school’s guides are the only ones authorized to lead and teach climbing at Yosemite National Park. Get a grip on the basics, including beginning climbing technique and rappelling, with the school’s popular “Welcome to the Rock” class.
Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (SYMG) offers guided rock climbing outside the park, as well as trekking, backpacking and hiking trips and tours both inside the Park and across the Yosemite Mariposa County wonderland. Founded in 1991, today SYMG is one of the “Best Outfitters on Earth” according to National Geographic Adventure Magazine. SYMG’s five-day Rock Climbing Camp explores the great walls and domes of Yosemite Mariposa’s Sierra National Forest.
See a Rock Show
Rock climbing is also a spectator sport in Yosemite. Just as the U.S. Open of Surfing and Mavericks attract throngs of spectators every year for big wave riding events, multitudes of Park visitors witness big wall climbers on El Capitan and neighboring peaks each year.
El Cap rises over 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, attracting climbers from all around the world. Majestic El Capitan Meadow is the perfect vantage point from the Valley floor. Binoculars will come in handy, as the wall’s truly massive scale can make finding tiny climbers on the granite faces difficult with the naked eye. No binocs? Look for tiny specks of color on the wall. Come dusk, beams of headlamps decorate El Cap’s popular climbing routes where climbers are either finishing their climbs, or preparing to spend the night.
El Capitan Meadow also provides a great view of Lower and Middle Cathedral Rock, and the Cathedral Spires. Some say these rocks, just opposite of El Capitan, are even more impressive than the Captain itself!
As with all Sierra meadows, El Capitan Meadow is fragile. Keep to the well-worn trails or stay close to the river on the edge of the meadow to avoid trampling sensitive habitat.
Autumn Rock Opera
Autumn may be the very best time to make your Yosemite Mariposa climb. Fall weather tends to be cooler, the colors brighter, and the summer crowd is back to school, making exploring and just getting around easier. There may be no more perfect time than fall for hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities like leaf-peeping. Another bonus: lodging prices fall with the temperatures meaning that this is a great season to look for deals on cabins, hotels and more.
The rock gods tend to be in Park during these salad days, so you’re more likely to see the likes of Hill, Harrington and Honnold flashing their skills on a grand stage. See four perfect fall days in Yosemite Mariposa and get inspired to start planning your rock and roll road trip!
Rock the Rules of Nature
As you witness the “leave no trace” philosophy of world-class rock climbers, it’s a great reminder to take extra care as you enjoy Yosemite Mariposa and Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The soaring walls of Yosemite Valley and undulating acres of granite and conifer terrain covering the park are as timeless and enduring as they are vulnerable.
Check out Nature Rules!, our guide to enjoying Yosemite Mariposa responsibly. Organized by category, Nature Rules! are equal parts common sense and off-grid wisdom. At their essence, it is about respecting who came before you, who live here now, and who will visit in the future. Learn and share Nature Rules! freely in anticipation of your next visit to Yosemite Mariposa.
To explore lodging options, things to do and places to eat, visit Yosemite.com, the #1 trip planning site for vacations to Yosemite National Park and historic Mariposa County. To stay up to date, follow @YosemiteNation on social media and subscribe to our newsletter, “The Wanderer”. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for great videos on the people and places of Yosemite Mariposa County.