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El Capitan

El Capitan in spring by Chris Migeon
El Capitan in Yosemite
Category: Yosemite Attractions
Region: Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley, CA, United States

El Capitan’s iconic granite walls dominate the west end of Yosemite Valley. At more than 3,000 feet (900+ m) above the valley floor, it is 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building, or more than 3 times as high as the tip of the Eiffel Tower.

Coming around the corner and having El Capitan suddenly fill your field of vision sometimes moves people to tears. It is a beacon for visitors, a muse for photographers, and one of the world’s ultimate challenges for climbers.

Best Places to See/Photograph El Capitan

Honestly, it’s hard to pick one best place to view “El Cap”. Due to its size, it’s part of many of Yosemite’s iconic views. Here are just a few.

Bridalveil Straight – As you drive into Yosemite Valley and you see El Capitan on the left, there are long pull-outs on both sides of the road for people to stop and admire the view. Please be considerate of other drivers and pull completely off the road. See if you can spot the heart on El Capitan where the granite features resemble a heart in the middle of the granite cliff. This is also a great angle to see Bridalveil Fall from fairly close, hence the name.

Tunnel View – Head south on Hwy 41 toward Glacier Point, or Wawona, to climb a short distance off the valley floor to see one of the must-stop vantage points in Yosemite, Tunnel View. El Capitan is unmistakable as the giant rock formation on the left. It’s also a great view of Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome way in the back.

El Cap Meadow – On your way back out of the valley, the road passes right in front of the base of El Capitan at El Cap Straight, and there is a pull-out on the left side of the road so that you can stop and take a look from up close. This is a great place to watch climbers in action, though they can be hard to spot because many people misjudge the massive scale of El Cap. Can you spot the dark diorite pattern on the eastern wall that climbers call the North American Wall (NA Wall) with good reason? Follow up your visit to El Cap with a trip to the California State Mining and Mineral Museum to learn more about minerals and rocks in Yosemite.

Note: El Capitan meadow is currently under restoration, so please look from one of the viewing areas close to the road, or if you want to walk back into the meadow, use the trail on the eastern edge, close to the river and avoid trampling the center of the meadow where it is most sensitive to impact.

Best Time to See El Capitan?

Anytime, really. El Capitan is located in Yosemite Valley and is therefore accessible year-round, and majestic in all seasons.

For photography, stormy winter days often produce the most interesting light, with dramatic clouds swirling about the cliff face. This is true for many of Yosemite’s cliffs and large features.

If you’re specifically looking for climbers, there will be some in all seasons. However, there is a spring and fall “big-wall climbing season” in Yosemite when the temperatures aren’t too warm or too cold, and you’ll find most climbers on the wall during those times.

Freesolo, Dawn Wall & More El Cap Climbing Stories

El Capitan was thrust into the limelight recently through a few jaw-dropping films. Maybe you’ve heard of Alex Honnold’s bleeding-edge ascent of El Capitan without any ropes for protection in the Oscar-winning film, Freesolo. Or maybe you watched the drama of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s partnership on pioneering a new free route, Dawn Wall, in the film of the same name, and wondered what your own impossible challenge or “Dawn Wall” might be.

These El Capitan climbing stories were recently made into movies, but the stories of characters, adventure, teamwork, and bravery go back far beyond that. There are personal stories of triumphing over fear or forging the kind of friendships and partnerships built out of struggling together to accomplish something hard, that play out on a regular basis on Yosemite’s steep walls.

If you want to make your own stories, go rock climbing with the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Whether it’s your first time on rock, you want to make the transition from indoor to outdoor climbing, or you’re ready to take on El Capitan itself, Yosemite Mountaineering School can connect you with a guide that can help you, and will probably have a few personal stories they would share with you as well. For more stories, be sure to visit the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum & Gallery in Mariposa.

El Capitan’s Firefall Light Show

In mid- to late-February, El Capitan is home to a now-famous light show of Horsetail Fall, sometimes simply called “the Firefall” or “the Horsetail Firefall”. Hundreds of people have come from all over in hopes of seeing this small ephemeral fall on El Capitan’s eastern flank turn molten gold with the setting sun.

Three things need to come together for a spectacular firefall.

  • The angle of the sun. During the last part of February, the angle of the sun is perfect so that if you are standing at the El Capitan Picnic Area, the light of the setting sun shines through the water turning the falls a golden red.
  • Water in Horsetail Fall. Horsetail Fall is an ephemeral fall meaning that it can dry up if there isn’t enough melting snow above the fall to produce a waterfall. That means that in dry years, there may simply not be enough water in Horsetail Fall to catch the light of the evening sun.
  • Clear evening. If clouds block the sun, the effect is shrouded. Though if the forecast is for clouds it may still be worth a look because a break in the clouds can lead to the most magical and unique photographs.

The classic spot for viewing the Horsetail Firefall is from El Capitan Picnic Area. However, it’s all about viewing angles so other areas that are farther away, but maintain the same angles with the waterfall and sun have also become popular in the last few years.

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