The world’s largest “rock” isn’t the Hope Diamond.
It’s the Ayer’s Rock in Australia some 208 miles southwest of Alice Springs. It is 1,142 feet tall and 5.8 miles in circumference.
But you don’t have to fly across the Pacific Ocean and make your way across the outback or make your way to the Smithsonian to gawk at a world record rock.
There’s one in your own backyard in the 209 – El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Soaring 3,000 feet virtually straight up above the Yosemite Valley floor, it is the world’s largest granite monolith. The face is remarkably crack resistant making it popular with top tier rock climbers from around the world.
To enjoy El Capitan you don’t have to be a world-class rock climber. And you can also do more than gawk from the valley floor.
You can hike to the top. One way is to access the North Rim Trail by hiking up out of the valley from near Yosemite Falls.
But if you want a completely different Yosemite experience away from Little Los Angeles – what Yosemite Valley can turn into at times with wall-to-wall crowds – consider going to the Yosemite high country.
Not only is there more solitude on trails with significantly less people, but camping in the high country at Tamarack Flat Campground is the real McCoy. Instead of pitching a tent within earshot of the screeching braking of tourist traffic, you are actually in a forest setting minus downtown San Francisco. Hiking to glacier carved El Capitan is a 15-mile round trip from the Tamarack Flat Campground.
Making it a day trip
I made it a day trip, leaving Manteca at 3:30 a.m. and returning 16.5 hours later. The actual hike took 9.5 hours round-trip.
Parts of the hike are considered strenuous but if you are in decent shape and slow down the pace you can still make it a day trip or break it down into a two-day affair and enjoy some wilderness camping. There are ample places for that along the trail. The only folks I passed going up had done that and the four hikers I passed coming down were going to camp as well near the top.
The trail is extremely easy to read with only one place on the descent causing me momentary confusion. It is somewhat steep in places but isn’t dangerous. The early part of the hike out of Tamarack Campground is on the abandoned Old Big Flat Oak Road that the forest is slowly reclaiming. About 2.5 miles into it and shortly after crossing the foot bridge over Cascade Creek, you start ascending a traditional trail. It is a combination of dirt and walking over granite. Trail crews have marked the trail well.
There is no water once you pass Cascade Creek so keep that in mind.
Mosquitoes were prevalent and aggressive. I applied Repel with Deet 10 different times. It kept me from getting bitten. You will still end up shooing them away from your face as they dive bomb you looking for a place of skin you didn’t cover with repellent.
It’s a great feeling standing on top of the world’s biggest monolith granite rock especially after you’ve craned you neck numerous times over the years looking up its face from the valley floor. But if you expect heart-stopping views instead of just cool views from the summit, you will be a bit disappointed.
There are two reasons for that. First, El Capitan where it is positioned looking over Yosemite Valley sticks out like a sore thumb. But from atop El Capitan the vista points aren’t nearly as sweeping as from North Dome, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Glacier Point, several points along the South Rim Trail or even from the top of Yosemite Falls.
The other reason is how cautious you need to be on El Capitan. It is slippery and tapers off to the edge. While you might be tempted to ease yourself down as much as you can to get a better view, don’t.
There have been 120 climbing fatalities in Yosemite since 1905 with 31 falling from El Capitan. That said triple that number have died from falls, mostly peering over the edge or slipping off trails due to simply being careless. Of all the vistas overlooking the valley that are accessible by established hiking trails, I’d argue El Capitan is the least safest as you can peer over other spots safely by not being stupid by either being a show-off or not cautiously approaching the edge and certainly not turning your back on it.
The reason El Capitan isn’t as deadly for casual hikers is most people won’t attempt it due to the length of a round trip. As for those into hiking they get the appeal is the trip there as much as simply being on top of a world famous rock that over 4 million people a year come to gaze at.
That said, the views on most of the hike are great, especially that of El Capitan Gully. You can look across the Yosemite Valley and detect no signs of civilization. That in itself is worth the hike.
Compared to hikes up Half Dome and to Cloud’s Rest, there are no real dangerous stretches. Although my favorite of the three is still Cloud’s Rest, it’s tough to beat El Capitan. I was on top by myself. And even if others were there is plenty of space on top so you’d still have the feeling of standing on top of a gigantic rock all by yourself.
Perfect 209 weekend trip
If you camp, the Tamarack Flat to El Capitan excursion is a great weekend venture especially if you are in the 209 and just hours away.
The Tamarack Flat Campground at 6,300 feet is a little more than three miles up Tioga Road (Highway 120) after leaving Crane Flat. You then take a narrow paved road for another three miles that after about halfway becomes riddled with rough spots and potholes.
No reservations are available for Tamarack but it rarely fills up during the week and non-holiday weekends. There are 52 camping sites. Each is complete with fire pits and food lockers. There are vault toilets at the campground. Stream water is available but must be filtered.
There is a $10 fee. Each campsite accommodates up to six people.
The campgrounds are open usually from June to September.
The entrance fee to Yosemite is $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass.