It’s 7:30pm on a Tuesday in May and I’m sitting at a park bench, watching the sunset just inside park boundaries. I’m waiting for the rangers at the gate to go home for the night so that I can avoid paying the $35 weekly park fee. I’ve had 12 straight days of climbing and one day to do laundry, pack my bags, and take a quick, final hike through the valley before heading to San Francisco to catch a plane to Australia. I’m leaving some of the most scenic views and best climbing in the world, but I’m also leaving a tourist Mecca, Starbucks, and valet parking at a high end hotel. Yosemite is a beautiful world of stark contrasts. As a climber, I’ve deliberately tried to avoid the crowds and creature comforts of the city while in the park, but the hoards of tourists taking photos of me while racking up, asking if I’ve heard of Alex Honnold, and the park rangers enforcing unnecessary laws, make it hard to escape. Maybe that chase is part of what it makes it so much fun to be here.
Style: trad, boulder, some sport
Approach: 1-100 minutes
Gear: a large and varied rack is valuable. Big gear (#5 and 6 cams) are required for many routes.
Season: April – November but varies year to year based on snow fall/melt
The best routes in the park are trad and aid routes. To get the Yosemite experience, you need to spend your time jamming crack; and you’ll get cracks of all sizes. Some of the best routes had everything from tips to chimney. Bring your full arsenal of crack climbing technique or have fun (type 2) learning how mid-route. I had always thought aid climbing wasn’t something for me. Too complicated, too much work, too much gear required. I thought I’ll just get stronger and free everything! But when I looked up at El Cap, I definitely wished I could aid climb efficiently. The ‘big rock’ is so inspiring; enough to instantly change my values. I climbed for 12 days in a row in the park; too much psych and too many routes. Because of that, I spent much of my time cruising the moderates in the park. Here are a few of my favourites and why:
Uncle Fanny 5.7 – a good taste of Yosemite offwidth and chimney climbing close to the ground.
Church Bowl Lieback 5.8 – a good taste of Yosemite style crack with friction feet.
Bishops Terrace 5.8 (2 pitches but best done as one) – a fantastic climb showing how sustained even moderate climbs can be with great hand jams the whole way.
Freeblast (first pitch) 5.10c – it feels good to hop on something with some much history and this is a good way to do it. 150’ of finger crack and a close up look at the big rock.
Swan Slab Gully 5.6 3 pitches – dead easy, mostly 4th class moves but a good intro to Yosemite and a great place to take first timers. The guiding school takes groups here every day so expect to wait or go outside school hours.
The Grack 5.6 3 pitches – easy lead for the grade and a good intro to low angle hand jamming. Very busy, and loaded with beginner leaders. Expect to wait.
Munginella 5.6 3 pitches – more sustained than others at the grade, really fun and a good view with the option to get in more pitches above.
Commitment 5.9 3 pitches – the harder sibling of Munginella. Climbs very similarly, and looks very similar. I actually climbed this thinking it was Munginella! The committing move isn’t as hyped as the old guides make it out to be.
Selaginella 5.9 4 pitches – the second tier of Five Open Books can be climbed as a long approach, or more commonly after one of the 3-4 pitch routes below it. A bit wandery in places but great climbing and makes a full day out of one of the routes listed above.
Nutcracker 5.9 5 pitches – sustained quality crack climb with slab climbing mixed in. Well protected and a good challenge for an intermediate leader.
Serenity Sons 5.10d 8 pitches (link up of Serenity Crack and Sons of Yeterday) – possibly my favourite route and definitely my favourite multi-pitch climb I’ve ever done. The crux pitches are down low and the final 3 pitches of 5.9 are some of the most rewarding crack climbing you can get. This route is 1000’ of almost entirely uninterrupted crack climbing from tips to fists. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way.
I haven’t been all that stoked on bouldering lately; I’ve been taken more by longer lines. That’s likely the better attitude to have in Yosemite because the best lines are far from the ground, but the bouldering is surprisingly good. In particular, some of the crack problems like Bachar Crackar V4, and Cedar Roof Crack V5 are a lot of fun. There are boulders all over the park, but the high traffic area seems to be surrounding Camp 4, likely because of the history and ease of access. Because of this, a lot of the lines here are extremely polished. Of course, the mega-classic Midnight Lightning V8 is a must try, just outside the Camp 4 washroom. Every night, when conditions are best, there’ll be a stack of pads and group trying to send it by headlamp.
It’s true: there’s not much sport climbing in the valley. I had friends in the area with no trad climbing experience that had a much better time in Owens River Gorge. If you’re fixing to try hard on bolts though, there are some nice, modern bolt jobs at Mecca in the Lower Cathedral area.
The obvious spot is to stay at Camp 4. History and convenience make this a no-brainer for climbers. Though the lottery system being introduced in May 2019, just a few days after my trip, may change this for some people. At the time that I visited, the protocol was to line-up early in the morning to wait for a spot. On weekends by 6am, and weekdays by 7am. The park ranger arrives at 8am and hands everyone a number corresponding to the place that they’re standing in line. The numbers relate to the amount of people leaving Camp 4 that day, and indicate that you have a spot. If you don’t get a number, you don’t get a spot. You then continue to wait until you can pay and be given your site number.
Good things to know about Camp 4:
- If you show up in a group you won’t necessarily be placed together. Each site takes 6 people and will always be filled with 6 people. If you arrive in a group of 4, but only 2 spots are available at any given site, you’ll be split up. The rangers will try to keep groups together but it’s not always possible. So, this means that… You won’t be alone. You’ll be camping with strangers. Yes, it’s busy. However everyone seemed pretty decent and rarely was it noisy during the day or night.
- It’s not a climbers campground. I was surprised to find that less than half of the people camping there were climbers.
- You’re limited to one week per year during peak season May – September. And one month during the whole year. This applies to all campsites. They take all of your information down and require your license to do so. Leaving the park and coming back does not reset time.
- Alternatives to Camp 4 include the many campsites in typical National Park style. They go for $35/night for groups up to six. Some are walk-ins, so it might be worth a try if you miss getting a spot Camp 4.
- Outside the park are National Forests that have free dispersed wilderness camping. I stayed here, at a free campsite on Hardin Flat Road, both on the way in and out of the park heading to and from San Francisco.
The most practical option to get to the park is to drive in, either with your own or a rental car. It’s also possible to take a bus in, though I’m unfamiliar with pricing and availability. Once in the park, there’s a free shuttle that can get you around some of the major stops including some approaches for climbs, groceries, and showers. Traffic in the park heads in a one-way loop, which can mean driving 1 mile to your approach can take 20 minutes or more if traffic is bad. Yes, traffic! On weekends, traffic jams are normal and frustrating, to say the least. The locals have it right: bike or longboard. If you have the opportunity, get yourself a bike to get around. It’s economic, environmentally friendly, and you’ll be laughing at the tourists stuck in traffic trying to get back to San Fran on a Sunday afternoon.
FOOD, BEER, WIFI
Get your groceries on the way in!!! Coming from San Fran, stop in Modesto for the best selection, or the Mar-Val in Groveland if you miss Modesto. Coming from LA, stop in Fresno for better selection or at the Raley’s in Oakhurst. Groceries in the park are expensive and not of the highest quality. The bear lockers provided at camp can store a lot of food, so plan your meals and stock up. It’s an hour to good groceries. If you do need to shop in Yosemite though, Yosemite Village, rather than Half Dome Village has a better selection. If you get desperate, the cafeteria, Base Camp Eatery, has decent food, including the impossible burger! It’s pricey, but a nice treat after a long day out. Beer is also better purchased outside the park, but the store has a decent selection and all can be purchased in singles. It’s legal to drink beer openly in the park. It is, however, very illegal to drive or bike after drinking and they’re serious about it. Wifi is sparse and virtually useless wifi at either village. Your best bet is to befriend a Yosemite employee and get the password to the Wellness Centre wifi.
Yosemite is such an inspiring place to be. It is the only place I have been day after day, route after route, waiting at belay ledges, looking down at the valley, and not minding one bit.