Backpacking The El Capitan Trail in Yosemite

The El Capitan (Historical) Trail is a 17 mile backpacking and hiking trail that goes up past Upper Yosemite Falls and over to the top of El Capitan on the North Rim of Yosemite National Park. The trail is usually hiked point to point, and has great views from the top of the famous granite face and Eagle Point. Overall, the trail is a leg pumping 5,515ft of elevation gain and is rated as difficult on AllTrails. 




Permits In 2021

Wilderness Permits for overnight trails in Yosemite National Park are working a bit different for the 2021 season. 60% of the permits are available 24 weeks ahead of time, on a rolling basis and are processed via lottery.

The other 40% that would regularly be available on a walk up basis, are available 15 days ahead of time, and are being chosen via lottery. Many permits are reserved immediately, so put in your request as soon as it becomes available.

You will need to research your information on the Yosemite National Park Website  before applying for a permit. You will need to know:

• Hike Start Date
• Starting Trailhead
• 1st Night’s Camp Location
• Group Size
• Trip Leader Contact Information
• Hike End Date
• Ending Trailhead

After entering the lottery, you will be notified of your permit via email within a few days. If chosen, you must pay for your permit online for it to be fully accepted and you must pick up a physical permit at a Wilderness Center in the park before 10am the day you plan to leave on your trip.

Alternative Trail Routes

The El Capitan Trail is commonly hiked out and back, as it goes up the Yosemite Falls trail and forks off right at the top. The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is one of the busiest in the park. If you have a hope of getting into the Yosemite Wilderness and feeling secluded, this section of the trail will be entirely the opposite.

During warmer months, this trail can also get incredibly hot and is very exposed in the top section of the climb. If I could offer one piece of advise for this trail, it would be to come in from Tuolumne, Big Oak Flat, or Tamarack Flat during the summer.

↟ For closer to a 20 mile trail, you can hike from Big Oak Flat to El Capitan and come down the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. If shuttles are running, you can take it back to BOF.

↟ Starting from Tuolumne Meadows will also get you to around 20 miles. Starting from the Tioga Pass area near White Wolf. The elevation gain is much more mellow and will be around 3,000ft.

Important Trail Information & Tips

↟ You must get up to at least Upper Yosemite Falls for overnight camping. There are a couple designated spots (you can find them on AllTrails) if you are not planning to go all the way to El Capitan. Its also the biggest water source on the trail.

↟ Your wilderness permit covers your entry into Yosemite National Park. You do not need to make a separate reservation in order to enter the park for the 2021 season.

↟ You can stay the night before and after your wilderness trip at Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, and (once Tioga Road opens) Tuolumne Meadows backpackers camps. The camping fee is $6 per person. There is also free dispersed camping in the National Forest area off HW 120.

↟ All things with smell must be stored in a Bear Can, this includes toiletries. They are available for rent at Wilderness Centers if needed. We saw two bears on this trail close to El Capitan, make sure your items are secure. 

↟ Make sure to pack out your toilet paper (and feminine products)! The soil in Yosemite is too arid to break anything down quick enough. Animals will smell it and dig it up to use for nesting material before it actually decomposes.

If you are hiking during a hot day, use caution. Know the signs and symptoms of Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke, and Dehydration and make sure you are keeping in tune with your body! The section of Upper Yosemite Falls is a very hard, steep, and unshaded section that will test your limits. I drank about 2L of water in the first three miles, had plenty of breaks in the shade and still got heat exhaustion. People do get airlifted from this trail fairly often because they are not prepared.

↟ Bring enough water! Water sources get more scarce the closer you get to El Capitan. There is a water source to the west of the summit of El Cap and a few before it.

↟ Mosquitos were not a huge problem on the trail (there still were some mid-summer) but there are a lot of the small flies that like to fly into your nose and mouth.

 


Trail Report

Trip Dates: 6/26-6/27

Total Mileage: 17

Trail Type: Out and Back

Trailhead: Yosemite Falls

We picked up our backpacking permits for the El Capitan Trail from the Wilderness Station in Tuolumne Meadows on Friday evening, just before they closed at 5:00PM. Two hours later, we were down in Yosemite Valley dropping off our car-camping gear at the backpackers campground near North Pines Campground. The campground was busy, and must have had 3 dozen other backpackers about to head out on their own trails the next day.

After an early morning wake up call to shoot sunrise at 5:30, we returned back to the backpackers camp to pack up and hit the trail. After a confusing conversation with a wilderness ranger, we decided to leave our car at the trailhead near the starting point of Half Dome, and walk the extra 2 miles to the trailhead (This was not needed, don’t do this).

By 9am, we were starting the climb to Upper Yosemite Falls. Making frequent stops, there is a comradery that forms with other people you yo-yo with on trail. We made conversation with a group of two boys and their Dad who were going up to see Yosemite Falls, and the young boys had a spring in their step that I wish I had carrying my pack up the steep parts of the trail. I jokingly asked if they wanted to carry my backpack for me… they declined.

The first 3 miles of this trail were harder than I anticipated, but a contributing factor was the heat wave that had made its way over towards Yosemite National Park the day prior. By 11am it was nearing the highest temperatures of the day, 97 degrees.

There was a quick section of downhill mid-climb that gave us a bit of a break, but I knew that the next section would be much worse, and it was. Little to no shade, steep, rocky trails, and a relentless sun beating down on us. Walking on these sections felt like they lasted for an eternity. Every section in the sun got hotter and hotter.



In 3 miles we climbed roughly 2800 feet of elevation. Our water was nearly gone, and I was showing symptoms and signs of heat exhaustion. A few miles after the fork at the top of the climb, we crossed a stream to fill up on water and take a break to eat lunch.

A few hours later we were closing in on our destination for the night, the top of El Capitan. I took another short break to catch my breath and attempt to rehydrate myself. There was another hiker that passed us on the trail that was on his way back from El Capitan. “The view wasn’t even that cool actually, it was kind of disappointing” he said.

I was surprised, maybe the view was obstructed by another point, I thought. We pushed on.

Sentinel Dome from El Capitan

Once we neared the top of the summit, my mouth fell open. Panoramic views could be seen from the crest of El Cap. The direct sight of Half Dome fell between expansive views of Tuolumne Meadows and Little Yosemite Valley, and you could see as far back as the Ansel Adams Wilderness area we were the week prior. We found a spot behind a tree on the left side of the trail to set up our tent for the night. It was just protected enough from the wind, and we could still see the top of Half Dome.

After taking a long nap, I grabbed my camera around when the sun was starting to set and started my usual “run-around-like-a-crazy-person-taking-photos” routine. I was pleasantly surprised to see the other 4 groups staying at the top of El Cap out to watch the sunset on Half Dome. The air was much cooler, and the wind that had been whipping the top of the point was starting to fade.

After the sun had set, we headed back to the tent to make dinner before going to sleep. My dinner consisted of Instant Rice, a Chow Mein Ramen packet, and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

I woke up around 2 am to sounds of yelping from the group about 200 yards away from us. The moon was bright, and was shining straight through he dyneema of the tent like the sun mid-day. Once the yelping stopped I heard one of the tents yell to another. The only word I could make out was one: “bear”.

I woke up around 5:30 again for sunrise, and walked up the trail to the highest point of El Cap. The trail continued down from here about another mile to reach the vertical portion of the climbing routes. Right after sunrise, I woke up Reid, we made our breakfast, and we were the first ones to be up and out of the area.

Our plan was to stop at Eagle Point before going back down to the Valley. The small flies on trail were happy to see us awake, and they made every attempt at getting into my nose and mouth when they saw the opportunity. Spiders had carefully strung their strings of webbing across the trail, and we ran into them every few steps.

About a mile from where we camped at El Capitan, while rounding a corner, Reid promptly turned around and whispered under his breath “there’s a bear”. A large mother and her cub crossed the trail over to the brush. They stopped and stared at us for about 15 seconds, before the mother ran off. Her cub stopped for about a minute longer, looking from us to his mother, before running off behind her.

After a pit stop at Eagle Point, we made it to the trail fork for Upper Yosemite Falls. It was another hot day in the valley, and temperatures were expected to climb to 100 degrees before 1PM. We took the trail to the left, and down into the river leading to the falls for a quick swim. We washed away the caked on dirt left on our skin from the sweat, and cooled off before starting the trail down back to the valley.

Descending back into Yosemite Valley was no where near as difficult as the climb, but 3 miles of nearly straight downhill left my calves burning by the bottom of the trail. We ran towards the Swinging Bridge area of the Valley to take a dip in the water. There was a perfectly framed view of Yosemite Falls behind us, and the fact that we had just climbed that trail, seemed impossible.

 

Favorite Gear Backpacking El Capitan

 

 

1.Badger SPF 35 Clear Sport Sunscreen Stick : Sunscreen, Sunscreen, Sunscreen. If I could offer you one piece of advice, this would be it. I love sunscreen sticks for their ease of use on trail. I keep mine in my waist pocket to apply while I am walking and I also use it for SPF Chapstick. Zinc Sunscreens tend to work best, and this one is great.

2. The North Face Horizon Breeze Brimmer Hat: Wider brim hats will be your best friend! Keep your neck protected as much as you can. I love this one from North Face- its an awesome color and it isn’t stiff enough to fly off your head if the wind picks up (which at the top of El Cap, it likely will).

3. Nuun Sport Hydration Tablets: If you aren’t bringing some sort of hydration tablet or supplement with you, let me introduce you to your new obsession- Nuun Tablets. They come in a bunch of flavors, with or without caffeine, and are the best way to replenish your electrolytes mid trail. I stick two of them into my Nalgene 32oz bottle and its a great way to keep hydrated on long, hot days on trail. Just get them- trust me.

4. Ray-Ban Polarized Sunglasses: I recently got polarized sunglasses for my birthday, and honestly I think they make a huge difference on trail. Unpolarized lenses can be really bad and straining for your eyes, and don’t really protect them like these do.

You can find a complete list of gear that I use on my blog post My Must-Have Backpacking Gear.


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Have you backpacked El Capitan or been to Upper Yosemite Falls? How was your experience on the trail? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Happy Hikin!


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