Yosemite is well known as a magnet for rock climbers, but even experienced climbers can be daunted by their first glimpse at Yosemite Valley's massive vertical walls. Tuolumne Meadows, the other big climbing draw to the park, has numerous granite domes and formations like Cathedral Peak and the Matthes Crest, a 1-mile-long granite fin with sheer drops of 500 feet. For hands-on instruction, sign up with Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, which conducts seminars and classes for beginning, intermediate, and advanced climbers from mid-April to October each year. Classes meet daily in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows; equipment rentals are available. Yosemite Mountain Shop, located in the park, also has climbing gear for purchase.
If you'd rather watch rock climbers than do it yourself, head to El Capitan Meadow. Set up a camp chair and scan the face of massive El Capitan (“The Captain” in Spanish) to see impossibly tiny climbers ascending the almost sheer face. Ever since this 3,593-foot rock face was first climbed successfully in the 1950s, a succession of bold adventurers have inched their way to the top. Most do it in three to five days; their nights are spent sleeping on ledges or tethered into hammocks (watch for the glimmer of their headlamps as they get ready to tuck in for the night). However, a brazen new breed of speed climbers has completed the ascent of “The Nose,” one of El Cap’s best-known climbing routes, in just a few hours. But speed isn't the only way climbers have distinguished themselves on this rock. Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made history in January 2015 when they became the first to free-climb El Cap's Dawn Wall, long considered the most difficult rock climb in the world. The remarkable feat, in which climbers only use ropes and harnesses for safety and depend solely on their strength and talent to ascend, took 19 grueling days.
Much more can be learned about the history of Yosemite rock climbing at the Yosemite Climbing Museum & Gallery, which was opened in 2020 by local rock-scaling legend Ken Yager. Get an overview of the impact that technology has had on climbing gear through the artifacts and hardware that are on display, and check out historic photographs and local artists’ works that depict Yosemite, climbing, and key figures in the sport.