When viewed from Yosemite Valley, El Capitan appears to be an insurmountable wall of rock. Unless you are a gifted climber, it probably is! The good news is that there is a less obvious way to take in the view from the summit that is accessible to mere mortals.
The hike begins from the Tamarack Flat campground off of highway 120. It is a strenuous 15 mile day hike, but well worth the effort. Being as you have to walk a fairly long way for the payoff, it is seldom over-crowded and I have done the entire out and back without seeing another hiker on several occasions during the off-season.
Begin by walking down the old Big Oak Flat road to the north rim trail. I use the term road loosely as it has not been used for that purpose for quite some time. After a short distance the real work begins and we are faced with a climb that is close to 2,000 vertical feet. It’s not all steep, but it is steady so take your time and enjoy the changing scenery. The views on this section are not what I would call spectacular by any means, but as you climb you get a good example of how ecosystems change with altitude. Pay attention and it can be quite interesting, especially if you are one of those people who is always trying to figure out how everything fits together, like I am. From the top of the ridge, descend a short distance to Ribbon Creek. After a short up and down section head east to the top of El Capitan gully. From there, continue south to the El Capitan summit trail.
The trail leads to the large summit of El Capitan. From there, you will enjoy great views into the valley and a unique perspective of Half Dome as well as the high Sierra beyond. Even though the summit is wide open and gentle, be careful! The rock can be slippery, especially when wet and gentle slopes often quickly lead to frightening vertical drops. Also be aware of the weather as you are very exposed and a long way from the trail head.
On the way back, take some time to explore the area near Ribbon Creek. After the wide open views from up top, this area always feels snug and comfortable. I almost never escape without a little diversion in this area and enjoy it very much, although I can’t really put my finger on why. It’s easy walking, but at times plagued with mosquitoes so bring the bug spray! Save some energy for the descent back to the trail head as I find it the most tiring part of the walk.
With all of the spectacular hiking in California, some truly amazing routes can get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let that happen here. If you are up for a long walk with a delayed, but spectacular payoff, El Capitan should be on your list of must do outdoor adventures.