Hiking Yosemite El Capitan

Notes by piero scaruffi | Yosemite page | California hikes | Other California destinations
GORP: Trail details | GORP: More trail details


El Capitan can be reached two ways: hiking east from Tamarack Flat, or hiking north and west from Sunnyside/Camp4 (TF to EL or UF to EL in the Yosemite hiking map). The elevation gain is much bigger for the second way, which is also slightly longer.

Camp4/Sunnyside is in the Yosemite valley (the same trail that goes to the Upper Falls). Tamarack Flat is NOT in the Yosemite valley (it's off Tioga Rd). If you hike from one side to the other, you need to leave a car at the end, which is not trivial (it's a 45-minute drive).

Description from Tamarack Flat or Foresta

The road from Tioga Rd to the Tamarack Flat Campground is (very bad) paved road, and that's when the gate is open, which is rare. It's about 5kms to the campground. From the campground to El Capitan the trail is 13.5 kms.

From Tamarack Flat Campground to Cascade Creek the road is paved (closed to vehicles) through lodgepole pines (the "tamaracks") and white firs. Eventually, the road descends steeply and it intersects the trail coming from Foresta to the Cascade Creek bridge (4.5kms, about 1 hour).

The other option to get to this point is to start from Foresta. This trailhead, marked Old Big Oak Flat, is located on Tioga Rd about 200 meters west of the Foresta Road junction, on the south side of the road, just after the three tunnels if you are coming from Yosemite Valley. Cross the street and you'll see the very old sign announcing "10 miles" to the top. Like all signs in miles, this sign is not accurate and the distance is not 16 kms. After 1h30' you will reach a creek crossing. Note that the water can be pretty high in the spring when the snow is melting. After 7kms the Foresta trail connects with the Tamarack Flat road. Turn right into this road and after 500m turn left. Don't miss the sign pointing uphill for El Capitan.

If you are coming from Tamarack Flat, cross the bridge and continue 800 meters down the old Big Oak Flat Road, but, about 500 meters after the junction with the Foresta trail, watch carefully for the sign on your left (the semi-paved road continues forever). The sign sends you uphill to El Capitan.

Whichever way you came, the route is no longer a semi-paved road, but a real trail. You are 9kms from El Capitan.
This trail goes up quite steeply. Eventually, the trail almost disappears (follow the cairns). At the top (a bare white top), look to your right and you should start seeing red tags on trees. Follow the red tags. The trail now goes down into a forest. At the bottom, you cross the Ribbon Meadow: that meadow is a swamp in the spring. Follow the red tags to make sure you stay on the trail. The trail coasts the creek east 1.5 kms down to Ribbon Creek. Then you have the last major creek crossing. The trail then climbs up the top of El Capitan Gully. El Capitan is now visible. The trail (still uphill, but coming out of the forest) joins with the trail coming from the Upper Falls. Continue a bit and you will see the piles of stones that mark the top. The total time from the campground to the top is about 4 hours at a brisk pace (if you are hiking from Tioga Rd, add one hour).

Now you can return the same way (it will take you about the same time) or go back via the Upper Falls (faster, but harder on your knees).

If you continue the trail towards the Upper Falls, the hike will be a comfortable walk to Upper Falls through the forest. The trail goes up and down for about 8 kms. The last climb is to get to the Eagle Point fork. After that you will go down to the Upper Falls folk. Then the trail goes down steeply. This is one of the steepest trails in Yosemite and it is a curse on your knees, as most of it is steps.

Trail map from Sunnyside

Sunnyside to Upper Falls to El Capitan

  1. Sunnyside campground
  2. Fork to El Capitan and Upper Falls 1h 45'
  3. Leaving Upper Falls area towards El Capitan 3h
  4. Small summit before heading downhill 4h 30'
  5. Waterfall 5h
  6. El Capitan 6h
  7. Leaving the top 6h 30'
  8. Meadow 7h45'
  9. Bald plateau 8h
  10. Turning southwest into forest 8h15'
  11. Fire road 9h
  12. Paved road 12h

Tamarack Flat to El Capitan to Upper Falls

  1. Tamarack Flat Campground (0 kms, 0 kms, 1924m)
  2. Cascade Creek bridge (3.5 kms, 3.5 kms,
  3. Yosemite Valley's north rim trail or El Capitan trail (1 km, 4.5 kms,
  4. Creek crossing (5 kms, 9.5 kms,
  5. Ribbon Creek (1.5 kms, 11 kms,
  6. El Capitan Gully (1 km, 12 kms,
  7. El Capitan summit (1.3 kms, 13.3 kms, 2347m)
  8. Eagle Rock fork (5kms?, 18.3 kms,
  9. Upper Falls (4 kms?, 22.3 kms,
  10. Sunnyside campground (5.7 kms, 28 kms, 1220m)

Pictures of the 2001 hike

2001 El Capitan hike

  • start at Sunnyside campground (#4)
  • 30' to the first viewpoint
  • 1h 30' to the gulch
  • 2h to fork of Upper Falls (5 kms, 800m elevation gain)
  • 2h45 fork after Upper falls
  • 3h25 hrs to Eagle Point fork (9 kms)
  • 4h30 hrs to El Capitan summit (13 kms, 2307m high)
  • 6h15 hrs to Eagle Point fork (including 0.7 kms x 2 detour to Eagle Point)
  • 7h15 hrs to Upper Falls fork (810 elevation gain)
  • 9h50 hrs to Sunnyside campground
Roundtrip: 27 km (including Eagle Point), 9:50 hrs including breaks

It was June and we were quite annoyed by mosquitoes.

If you want to see Eagle Point on the way to El Capitan, do not trust the sign that says "0.3 miles". That would be 0.5 kms. You'll find out that it is at least one km. And very steep. But you get great views of Nevada Falls and the Glacier Point trail.