Yosemite Mountaineering School climbing guide, Miranda Oakley with Half Dome in the background. Photo: Yosemite Hospitality by Marta Czajkowska
Let’s be honest. Rock climbing in Yosemite rocks. Period.
Winter climbing can be found below Yosemite Valley at lower elevations. Shorter sunny crags like Arch Rock, Cookie Cliff and Pat and Jacks rarely get any lingering snow. Spring captures the sweet moments when the snow has melted, the cracks have mostly dried, and the temperatures are still cool in Yosemite Valley. Many local climbers migrate to Tuolumne in summer, voyaging out over clean granite domes and the high country peaks like Cathedral or Conness.
But the magic of fall rock climbing in Yosemite outstrips any of the other seasons. Cooler temperatures allow climbers to return once again to the soaring granite walls of Yosemite Valley. Bigleaf maples and willows dress the roadsides and gullies in bright yellow.
To fine-tune the conditions it’s easy to choose shady north-facing climbs on one side of the valley on warmer days, and sunny south-facing climbs to soak up the sun on the other side when it gets chillier. Between that and checking the climbing guidebooks for cliffs that get sun or shade at different times of day you can usually find the perfect temperature.
Traditionally, fall is also a social time in Yosemite Valley. Climbers from around the world begin gathering after Labor Day as soon as the weather cools. Vans and trucks line the parking areas in front of the popular Yosemite rock climbing areas and climbers and their gear pour out, shaking hands and hugging friends they may not have seen since the previous year. The big-name pros are here, trying hard and telling stories just like everyone else. Climbing El Capitan might be in the spotlight, but quality rock is everywhere in Yosemite Valley and climbers take advantage of most of it. This is the time to take on short hard climbs like Meltdown, the long easy climbs like Royal Arches and everything in between.
If you’re interested in watching climbers, bring your binoculars! There are usually many Yosemite rock climbing teams to spot if you know where to look.
El Capitan is one popular location to look for rock climbers. (If you go out into the meadow, stick to the area near the river on the edge of the meadow in order to avoid trampling sensitive habitat.)
Many people underestimate the scale of the cliffs, so finding the tiny climbers on these large granite faces helps put the size of the cliffs into perspective. From El Capitan Meadow without binoculars or a spotting scope, you should just be looking for tiny specks of color on the wall.
If you want to see climbers up close, try some of the shorter Yosemite rock climbing areas in the valley. The Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service commonly holds classes at Swan Slab, across the road from Yosemite Valley Lodge. You could even sign up for a rock climbing class or guided climb. Between The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Village, the cliff at Churchbowl Picnic Area is easy to see from the car, and there are some popular climbs at that cliff too.
For an extra treat, linger until after the sun sets. The beams of climbers’ headlamps decorate the cliffs along popular climbing routes where they are either finishing their climbs or preparing to spend the night.
Climbers’ headlamps high on El Capitan during the fall rock climbing season. Photo: Dakota Snider / www.dsniderphoto.com
Another great place to find climbers in the fall is while they are helping pick up trash for the Yosemite Facelift.
During the last week of September, climbers from across the world gather in Yosemite to clean up the trash left behind by millions of summer visitors. The event has expanded to include many non-climbers as well, but climbers are at the heart of the event. Yosemite rock climbing veteran, Ken Yager, the man who started Facelift, is a local resident and a former Yosemite Mountaineering School climbing guide.
During the day, volunteers register on the mall in front of the Yosemite Valley Visitor’s Center. They are given trash bags, litter sticks and gloves, and also raffle tickets for the evening raffle. There are also many other booths to browse in the mall from some of the Facelift’s generous sponsors, along with great organizations like Leave No Trace and Access Fund. Patagonia’s Worn Wear team also often makes an appearance with their sewing machines ready so bring those old clothes that just need a little TLC.
From Wednesday through Saturday, the end-of-day raffle begins at 5pm with a special children’s raffle before the adults get their prizes. Then, once the raffle ends, people begin to assemble in front of the East Auditorium in Yosemite Village to see presentations by their peers and heroes. Doors open at 7pm.
Like everything else about Yosemite Facelift, the evening presentations are top-notch. Alex Honnold appeared in person to present the academy award-winning documentary, Free Solo, when it first came out. Before that, film-maker Jimmy Chin made a presentation about the landmark climb itself before it was ever made into a movie.
Get ready for Rocktober! Yosemite rock climbing is at its peak during the autumn season in Yosemite. Here’s what makes the season especially appealing for rock climbers and how you can watch the drama unfold on the cliffs.
Every year, Yosemite Facelift volunteers clean up thousands of pounds of trash, but that’s not all there is to this event. Check out our top ten list of things to do while you’re at Facelift, and enjoy everything that this event has to offer.
Alex Honnold captured the national spotlight with the documentary FreeSolo. Here is what you need to know about climbing El Capitan that puts that tremendous feat into context, and gives you a sense for what is really happening up there on El Capitan.