Perhaps the single most recognizable natural feature of Yosemite National Park, El Capitan rises some 3,000 feet (915m) from the floor of Yosemite Valley. With sheer walls of granite on nearly all of its faces, El Capitan (or El Cap, as it’s affectionately known) is one of the most popular attractions in the National Park, particularly among climbers.
While climbers flock from around the world for a chance to climb El Cap’s staggering granite faces every year, many more hikers look up at the monolith from the Valley floor wondering if they, too, can ever reach El Cap’s summit.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: Can El Cap be hiked? Coming up, we’ve got answers to all of your questions about hiking El Capitan and all the information you need to hit the trail. Here we go…
Can you hike El Capitan?
Okay, first things first: Can you hike El Capitan? The good news for hikers is that, yes, you can, indeed, hike El Cap. But, if you’re looking for an easy day hike to the top of Yosemite National Park’s most iconic face, well, you’re in for a bit of a shock. While one can hike to the top of El Cap on a maintained trail, you’ll have to work for those jaw-dropping views.
A Staggeringly Large and Stunning Granite Wall
Alright, so what is El Capitan? Basically, El Cap is a large vertical rock that rises up about 3,000 feet (915m) above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Originally known as To-tock-ah-noo-lah to the Southern Sierra Miwok people of the greater Yosemite Valley region, El Cap’s staggering granite walls have long been a source of intrigue for climbers who sought out a myriad of ways to reach the formation’s summit.
While the first climbing ascent of El Capitan didn’t happen until Warren Harding (not the president…) climbed “The Nose” over the course of 47 days in 1958, these days, skilled climbers regularly ascend one of El Cap’s many routes in a week to ten days. However, the current speed record for climbing all 3000 feet of “The Nose” is just under two hours – an incredible feat.
That being said, the easiest and simplest route to the top of El Cap has always been to hike up the backside to the summit, which offers hikers the same fantastic views without the need for technical climbing gear or experience.
Be Prepared To Hike at Least 15 Miles
There are a number of ways to hike to the top of El Capitan, though the minimum distance is at least 15 miles for the roundtrip journey. As you can imagine, this is no walk in the park, so to speak, so you’ll want to budget a long day to complete this hike.
In fact, you could even turn this hike into a backpacking trip, but you’ll need to apply for a Yosemite wilderness permit to spend a night in the backcountry. Whichever trail you choose to take to the top of El Cap, though, the views won’t disappoint!
Trailheads for an El Capitan Hike
As we’ve mentioned, there are a number of different ways to hike to the top of El Capitan. Here are your best options:
Tamarack Creek Trailhead (in Tamarack Flat Campground)
The Tamarack Creek Trailhead is located in the Tamarack Flat Campground, which is off of Tioga Road (Hwy 120), some 45 minutes north of Yosemite Valley. The campground has 52 first-come, first-served tent sites, so it’s a good place to sleep the night before and after a hike up El Cap.
From the trailhead, it’s approximately 16.6 miles (round trip) to the top of El Capitan. Once you get onto the trail, it’s a pretty straightforward adventure on a maintained path, though you’ll have beautiful views along the way!
Do keep in mind, though, that Tioga Road is closed during the winter (generally December to May) due to heavy snowfall, so hiking El Cap from Tamarack Creek is a summertime experience.
Old Big Oak Flat Trailhead
The Old Big Oak Flat Trailhead is located along Big Oak Flat Road, some 3.7 miles west of the junction with El Portal Road and Yosemite Valley. Once you get to the trailhead, you’ll pick up the path that takes you to the top of El Capitan over approximately 16.4 miles, round trip.
The trail from Old Big Oak Flat takes you through a number of forested gullies and may require you to cross some high water in the park’s many rivers, such as Tamarack Creek, especially in the early summer. So, if you don’t have extensive river crossing experience, this trail might not be the best for you, or you should be ready to turn back if the situation is beyond your comfort level.
Yosemite Falls Trailhead
The Yosemite Falls Trailhead is located in Yosemite’s iconic Camp 4, long known as a hangout for the region’s top climbers. You can get to the trailhead by taking the park’s shuttle to shuttle stop #7 or the El Capitan Shuttle to stop #2.
From the trailhead to the top of Yosemite Falls, it’s about 7.2, miles round trip, making this a good turn around point for people who want a great view of El Cap without all of the miles. If you get to the top of Yosemite Falls and want to continue pushing through to the summit of El Capitan, you’ll add another 5.6 miles, round trip to your adventure, bringing the total distance to 12.8 miles, round trip.
The Yosemite Falls Trailhead is arguably the most popular access point for hikers on El Cap, so don’t expect a lot of solitude on the journey.
But, the Yosemite Falls Trailhead is open all year long and is the shortest approach, making it a solid option for an El Capitan hike.
El Capitan Hiking FAQs
Here are our answers to some of your most pressing questions about hiking El Capitan so you can spend less time researching your adventures and more time living them.
Do you need a permit to hike El Capitan?
Unlike some other popular hikes in Yosemite, such as Half Dome, you do not need a permit to hike El Capitan. The only time you would need a permit to hike to the summit of El Cap is if you plan to turn the adventure into a backpacking trip.
If so, you’d need to apply for a wilderness permit through the National Park. Wilderness permits aren’t required for any day hikes (the exception being Half Dome), but they are required for all overnight camping users in the park outside designated campgrounds.
The purpose of the permit system is to limit the number of people accessing the backcountry from a given trailhead each day so everyone can enjoy some solitude in Yosemite.
Technically speaking, wilderness permits are free in Yosemite National Park, but the park service charges you a reservation fee to reserve your permit ahead of time. If your upcoming trip to Yosemite is likely to be your only chance to go to the park and you really want to camp, it’s worth trying to reserve your permit ahead of time so you don’t miss out.
The park service has a daily quota for each trailhead, 60% of which can be reserved ahead of time for trips between May and October, while the other 40% is left open on a first-come, first-served basis, starting 11 am the day before you plan to hike. If you want to reserve a permit for a trip between May and October, you’ll use the park’s online reservation system to apply for the lottery no more than 24 weeks before your adventure dates.
It might all sound a bit confusing, but the park provides plenty of guidance on applying for a permit, which is worth reading thoroughly to ensure you have the best possible chance of getting a permit for your dream hike! Do keep in mind, though, that you do not need a permit for an El Cap day hike, so if you’re willing to put in the miles, you can still enjoy beautiful summit views!
What is the best time of year to hike El Capitan?
Yosemite National Park is open all year round, so you can hike El Capitan on any day of the year. However, some trailheads (e.g. Tamarack Creek) are on roads that are closed in the winter months, so you won’t be able to start your hike from there. So, if you do want to hike El Cap in the winter, your best bet is to start at the Yosemite Falls Trailhead.
That being said, the best time of year to hike El Capitan is late summer/early fall when the crowds in the park are ever so slightly smaller, the air is cooler and crisper, and there is no snow on the ground. Although you can hike El Capitan in the winter, do keep in mind that snow and ice make the summit very very slippery, which can be exceptionally dangerous.
So, if you want to hike El Cap in the winter, be sure you have the proper equipment and technical skills to manage yourself in tricky, ice-covered terrain.
Should I hike El Capitan or Half Dome?
While we think El Capitan and Half Dome are both incredibly worthy hikes in and of themselves, we understand that your time may be limited and that you may only be able to hike one of them on your trip to Yosemite. There are some major differences between a hike up El Cap and a hike up Half Dome that you should consider before you go, however.
First and foremost, a hike up Half Dome is a 17 mile, roundtrip adventure via the Mist Trail and the Cable Route. The hike gains some 4,800 feet as you reach the summit of one of the most iconic granite features in North America. As you might imagine, all of this awesomeness is highly popular and there’s a very competitive permit process for anyone looking to hike Half Dome.
Permits are available, usually from late spring to early fall and are allotted in two lottery processes. The preseason lottery is in March, with winners announced in mid-April while a smaller number of permits are available through a two day in-advanced lottery. You can apply for Half Dome permits on recreation.gov if you want a chance to hike Half Dome.
Besides the permit process, the other major difference between hiking Half Dome and El Capitan is that the cable route on Half Dome is highly strenuous, and highly exposed, so it’s not a great option for anyone with a major fear of heights or that’s unsteady on their feet. Alternatively, a hike up El Cap is a walk up a trail, which is better for many people who don’t like the feeling of exposure.
Our advice? If you really want to hike Half Dome and are okay with the exposure on rock and with heights, you should apply for a permit. If you don’t get a permit, or really don’t like exposure, El Cap is the hike for you. Both hikes are fantastic in their own right and offer different experiences for different adventurers.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.