On June 3, 2017, Honnold became the first person to ever ascend El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park, without the use of ropes, a harness, or a safety net of any kind. His free-solo feat, long considered inconceivable within the rock-climbing world, sealed the 31-year-old’s status as the best rock climber who has ever lived. Climber, filmmaker, and Honnold’s close friend Jimmy Chin documented the climb, which took just under four hours, for a National Geographic feature story and feature film.
Honnold was born in Sacramento and grew up with the Sierra Nevada as his mountain playground. He began climbing when he was 11, and at 19 left his studies at UC Berkeley to devote himself to his rock-climbing pursuits. Yosemite has been a second home to Honnold, who has notched some of his greatest climbing achievements there, including a solo of Yosemite’s Triple Crown—Mt. Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome—while living out of his van.
Even Honnold doubted the probability of a totally unsupported ascent of “El Cap,” one of the world’s most iconic climbing destinations. “I think it’s important to let yourself feel that doubt, because I didn’t want to put pressure on myself,” he said, in a post-climb interview with Men's Journal. “But, I knew I had to at least practice it and see if it was possible, otherwise I’d have always wondered whether I could, or should, have gone for it.”
Despite the international celebrity that followed, Honnold has maintained his self-proclaimed “simple dirtbag-climber existence,” living in his van in his favorite place on earth.
Where do you live? I’m from Sacramento, but have spent basically my whole life traveling and living out of my van. I spend more time in Yosemite than any other place—often three months or more a year.
Why there? Yosemite has the best climbing on earth.
What is your greatest California love? The Sierra Nevada. I grew up there and spent my whole life playing in the mountains. The smell of the dry pine forest around Tahoe and the High Sierra—that feels like home to me. There are so many [climbing] opportunities with big mountains, and the rock is so good. The sheer walls in the Sierra are unlike any other mountain range in the United States. The whole Eastern Sierra just drops off with several thousand-foot walls. It’s amazing for climbing.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? A lot of people just think about Hollywood, surf culture and the beach. Obviously, that is California, but for me it’s 100 percent mountain-focused.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That there’s crazy traffic, especially in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? There’s so much great food and fresh produce in California. The Mexican and Asian food is so good.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? I’d go up north on the coast. There’s a lot of rock up there I haven’t seen.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? I would decree Asian noodles. I love eating them. L.A. and the Bay Area are amazing for food and have the best options.
Best California song? "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
How would your California dream day unfold? I live my dream day. Wake up in Yosemite, pedal my bicycle down to El Capitan (which is the biggest rock wall in the world), and go climb it. Afterwards, I hang out with my friends in the Valley and socialize.
Bumping up against the west side of the Sierra Nevada range, the Sierra foothills are where California’s past, present, and future merge into one unforgettable destination. In the aptly named Gold Country, the 1848 discovery of glittering flecks sparked the largest mass migration in America’s history, when more than 300,000 pioneers headed west to California’s gold mines hoping to strike it rich.
Visitors can get a feel for what it was like to be part of it at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in the don’t-blink town of Coloma, where period buildings like a general store and a tin-roofed post office are preserved. The park also features the immersive Gold Discovery Museum, and kids can give gold-panning a try.
Treasures of a different kind are to be found along the Gold Country’s winding country roads. From one milepost to the next on the Golden Chain Highway (Hwy. 49), historic hamlets overflow with authentic Old West charm, and a new generation of pioneers own and operate farm-to-fork eateries, top-notch wineries, intriguing antique shops, and elegant B&Bs—many housed in impeccably restored 19th-century buildings. Amid all this history, the Gold Country has gone surprisingly modern. You can sample Zinfandels and Rhône varietals at family-owned wineries in the Shenandoah Valley, sit down to sophisticated cuisine at Taste in Plymouth, sleep in a luxurious B&B in Sutter Creek, or take in big-name music shows at Ironstone Vineyards near Murphys. Or leave the small towns in your rearview and head to the cosmopolitan state capital, Sacramento, to hang out in swanky wine bars and rooftop lounges, or rub elbows with independent beer makers at more than 30 brew pubs, tap rooms, and craft breweries.
There are plenty of outdoor activities, too. Savor whitewater thrills as you shoot the rapids on the Stanislaus or the South Fork American rivers, or wander among the ancient, towering sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Learn how California’s Gold Rush began at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, then go for a thigh-pumping hike to the top of Monroe Ridge, or visit one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines at Empire Mine State Historic Park. On the hottest days, head for the cool underground world of Black Chasm Cavern, a National Natural Landmark. A 50-minute walking tour introduces you to stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and delicate helictite crystals. Kids can pan for gold like the 49ers or try their hands at gemstone mining.
A road trip on historic Highway 49 doesn’t simply take you from point A to point B—it also transports you to the past. Begin in Old Town Auburn...
It’s no coincidence that the state highway running through the Sierra Nevada foothills is number 49. This is Gold Country, where, starting in 1849, a reef of gold-bearing quartz ...
Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft....
Pluck a bit of gold from a riverbed scoured by the original ’49ers. Descend deep into the earth to check out unusual rock formations. Get your heart racing with a ride down whitewater rapids. For...
Elegant estates at the end of country roads lined with vineyards? Check. Low-key wineries housed in converted barns? Check again. Urban wine trails with hip in-town tasting rooms? Yup,...
Columbia State Historic Park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town; they actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shops and...