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.
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 six years ago, 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. If you opt to start from the valley floor you will encounter easily 400 people if not more that are basically headed for Upper Yosemite Fall. It happens to be about 15 miles as well.
The trail from the high country 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.
The smoke from the forest fire that was burning as I was hiking didn't create any issues for breathing although it did create hazy views from the top. That said, despite smoke and annoying frustrated mosquitoes the hike was well worth it. 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.
The only big caution on El Capitan is the summit. 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. You don't gain that much and there is enough scree on the slick granite surface to make your heart race.
The views 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, North Dome and to Cloud's Rest, there are no real dangerous stretches. Although my favorite of the four is still Cloud's Rest, it's tough to beat El Capitan. I was on top by myself which is a rare experience on the other three summits. 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.
To be honest, the views are far better from atop North Dome unless, of course, you count the views heading up to Yosemite Falls from the valley floor if you opt to go there. It is why you don’t see very many views posted anywhere that are photographed from the top of El Capitan.
Still it is kind of neat knowing there are hundreds of people looking upward toward where you are standing even though you can’t see them thanks to the somewhat rounded nose.
I’d be remiss to not add that my hike to El Capitan provided the rare experience of two black bears crossing my path as well as six deer spread out at different points. On other hikes in Yosemite where I’ve come across larger animals in the high country it has usually been just a few deer at most.
The only other bear encounter in the high country was just below Mono Pass at 10,597 when I was startled by the sound of a buck dashing through the trees about 40 feet behind me. As I turned and caught a glimpse of it a second buck was sprinting across the trail. I reached for my iPhone hoping to be lucky enough to catch a video of a third deer running when I froze as one of the largest black bears I’d ever seen cut across the trail at full gallop.
I’ve been closer to black bears hiking outside of Mammoth but when it comes to size and watching them pursue prey the scene from my hike to El Capitan is etched in my memory even though I wasn’t quick enough to capture it on my smartphone.
Perfect 209 weekend trip
Yosemite National Park is still closed due to the pandemic.
National parks are slowly being reopened so there is an excellent chance you will be able to squeeze in a hike to El Capitan this summer.
The access from the high country is dependent on the reopening of Tioga Road (Highway 120) being cleared of snow. That usually happens in late May or June.
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 3 miles up Tioga Road after leaving Crane Flat. You then take a narrow paved road for another 3 miles that after about halfway becomes riddled with rough spots and pot holes.
No reservations are available for Tamarack as it is on a first-come, first-served basis. 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 or boiled. RVs and trailers are not recommended.
There is a $12 fee. Each campsite accommodates up to six people.
The campgrounds are open usually from June 16 to October 15.
The vehicle entrance fee for Yosemite National Park that is good for seven days is $35.