What is El Capitan? And why does it have such legendary status?

El Capitan: El Capitan pic
What is El Capitan? And what's so special about it? (Image credit: Getty Images)

Yosemite Valley and its famous El Capitan have long been at the centre of the rock climbing universe. However, in recent years, the gigantic rock formation has found its way into the general public's consciousness thanks, in part, to the global sensation and Oscar winning 2018 documentary, Free Solo. 

Unless you've been living under a rock (probably a smaller one than El Cap), you'll know the premise. It's the tale of legendary climber Alex Honnold's attempt to scale the huge southwest face in the free solo style, without ropes and traditional climbing aids. If you haven't yet seen it, you definitely should.

It wasn't just Free Solo that put El Cap in the limelight. 2014's Valley Uprising revealed Yosemite and El Cap's climbing history to viewers on Netflix and just before Free Solo, in 2017, the critically acclaimed Dawn Wall told the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's bold climb on the hugely challenging 3,000-foot Dawn Wall.  

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Gorgeous light on El Capitan (Image credit: Kari Siren)

So, El Capitan has become a bit of a metaphor for doing something jaw-droppingly awesome and terrifying. Perhaps your buddy pulled off a gnarly 5.7 graded route and said they “felt like Honnold clinging to El Cap for that last move” or maybe it was used to describe how imposing something was, as in, “the last half mile of that hike felt like scaling El Cap.” But what is El Capitan anyway?

If you haven’t been to Yosemite National Park or watched the movie Free Solo, there’s no great reason you’d know what it is, but naturally you still might feel a bit shy to ask. In this article, we explain what El Capitan is, what’s so special about it, and how you can get to the top of it.

What is El Capitan?

El Capitan in Yosemite

Simply put, El Capitan is a big old hunk of granite (Image credit: Amanda A / FOAP)

Simply put, El Capitan is a big old hunk of granite. And by big, we mean really, really big. This iconic landmark in Yosemite National Park rises 3,600ft straight up from the valley floor and, like many of the park’s rock formations, was formed by glacial erosion about one hundred million years ago. Standing at the height of three Empire State Buildings all stacked one on top of the other, this monolith not only towers over the Merced River and surrounding valley, it is also an impressive half mile wide. The name “El Capitan” means “the captain” or “chief” in Spanish and it is a loose translation of the indigenous Ahwahneechee names for the cliff. 

What is so special about El Capitan?

Light effect on El Capitan, Yosemite

This distinctive cliff face looks incredibly dramatic whether the weather is clear or stormy (Image credit: Pete Lomchid)

As we’ve already established, El Capitan is ginormous. You really only need to stand out in El Cap Meadow under the hulking presence of El Capitan to understand what’s so special about it. Though you think you might have a handle on it, it’s impossible to really comprehend its sheer magnitude through pictures, but for now, know that it is the largest exposed granite face in the world. Even up close, you’ll need binoculars to spot climbers on the wall because they appear like tiny ants against the behemoth backdrop.

This distinctive cliff face looks incredibly dramatic whether the weather is clear or stormy, and is also famous for producing  unique light effects such as the Horsetail Firefall, where sunlight filters through a small waterfall creating a fire-like effect.

what is trad climbing: El Capitan, Yosemite

El Capitan has long featured in legends of the Ahwahnechee tribes who are native to the valley, (Image credit: Getty)

El Capitan has long featured in legends of the Ahwahnechee tribes who are native to the valley, but in more recent times it has captured the imagination of big wall climbers seeking to solve the seemingly impossible puzzle of how to scale its vertical walls. 

The first person to achieve this feat was Warren Harding, who took 45 days over the course of more than a year to drill bolts and attach ropes to establish the first route to the top. Today, more than 70 free climbing routes exist for those who want to trad climb El Capitan, a tremendous feat that usually takes between four and six days to complete, and involves sleeping in your harness on the side of the cliff. One of the best-known climbing routes is the notorious Dawn Wall, the subject of the 2017 film, on the southeast face.

Is El Capitan considered a mountain?

Yes, according to Britannica, El Capitan is considered a mountain in the Sierra Nevada Range. Its elevation is 7,573ft above sea level and it has a topographic elevation 1.5 miles, which is part of the reason why its appearance is so striking. 

We're often asked when does something become a mountain. El Capitan definitely fits our criteria!

Who has free soloed El Cap?

A climber on El Capitan, Yosemite

El Cap is so massive it can be difficult to see climbers on it with the naked eye (Image credit: Cavan Images)

While quite a few hardy climbers have now free climbed El Capitan, only one person has free soloed El Cap at the time of writing this article. On June 3, 2017, Yosemite climber Alex Honnold climbed El Cap via the Freerider line without the use of ropes or any other protective equipment in three hours and 56 minutes. This exhilarating accomplishment was captured by filmmaker Jimmy Chin and documented in the must-watch movie Free Solo, which is at the top of our list of best climbing films. Seriously, even if you’re not a climber, go and watch this film right now.

Other notable climbs include:

  • Ray Jardine and Bill Price’s first free climb of El Cap, via The West Face route, in 1979
  • Lin Hill’s first ascent of The Nose in 1993
  • Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first ascent of the Dawn Wall, using ropes, which took 19 days to complete
  • Alex Honnold’s 70-year-old mother becoming the oldest woman to climb El Capitan, via the Lurking Fear route, in 2021

Can you hike El Capitan?

A hiker on El Capitan, Yosemite

You can definitely get to the summit of El Capitan in hiking boots, but be warned – it isn’t a casual day hike (Image credit: Cavan Images)

El Capitan is certainly best known as being a mecca for big wall climbers and it’s home to some of the difficult climbing routes on the planet, but does that mean you have to don climbing shoes and a harness to get to the top? Not at all. You can definitely get to the summit of El Capitan in hiking boots, but be warned – this is no casual day hike. 

There are several hiking routes to the top of El Capitan, all long and strenuous. The route from the Tamarack Creek trailhead is 16.6 miles roundtrip, while leaving from the Old Big Oak Flat Trailhead is a similar length and the route from the Yosemite Falls trail involves a 12.8-mile journey and is the most popular – and therefore most crowded – approach. For this reason, the hike is usually tackled as an overnight backpacking trip.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.  

With contributions from