El Capitan is a True American Treasure

El Capitan is is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, located on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit along its tallest face and is a popular objective for rock climbers. Photos by Brian Piret

By Brian Piret

Seeing El Capitan and Yosemite National Park isn’t just amazing the first time you see it. It’s amazing every time you see it. There is always something new to see you haven’t seen before. There’s a new angle to see it. A different perspective to benefit from.

To put it into perspective, El Capitan at more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor, it is 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building, or more than three times as high as the tip of the Eiffel Tower.

When is the best season to visit… any season. Because of its dramatic size, the views are always good.

Climbers can generally be spotted in the snow-free months on anything from ten-foot-high boulders to the 3,300-foot face of El Capitan.

Yosemite National Park offers extraordinary views as well as a number of different levels of vegetation.

According to the park’s website, at first glance, Yosemite’s natural wonders are easy to observe. Sights around the park are iconic in the human experience of national parks. Beyond the rocks, plants, and animals, is a story about people in Yosemite written on that very same landscape. It tells a story of different cultures (sometimes working together, sometimes in violent clashes) creating the place we call Yosemite National Park and defining how we experience it. Yosemite’s rich human history tells a story of conflict, dreams, diversity, hardships, adventures, and preservation of one of the first national parks.

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First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area.

Yosemite National Park is home to:

Through these collected and preserved items, insight can be gained into the history of humans on Yosemite’s landscape.

There are 800 miles of trails in Yosemite That comprise five separate vegetation zones.

Foothill-Woodland Zone

The lowest elevations in Yosemite are found on the western boundary of the park at the El Portal Administrative Site, which is at approximately 1,800 feet (549 m). This is the foothill-woodland zone, an area that is hot and dry in the summer with very little or no snow in the winter. Plants within this zone include chamise, ceanothus, manzanita, blue oak, interior live oak, and gray pine. These plant communities can also be found near Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

Lower Montane Forest

Beginning near the 3,000 foot (900 m) elevation, the hot, dry summers and cool, moist winters of the Mediterranean climate give rise to the lower montane forest zone. The accumulation of several feet of snow during the winter is not uncommon and can stay on the ground for several months. The diversity of tree species found in this zone make this a beautiful and interesting forest to explore. The lower montane forests are found along the western boundary of the park and include trees such as California black oak, ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, and white fir. Yosemite’s giant sequoia groves including the Mariposa, Merced, and the Tuolumne Groves are also found within this vegetation zone. The lower montane forest encompasses 166,000 acres (87,200 ha) and can be seen in Yosemite Valley and along the Wawona, Hetch Hetchy, and Big Oak Flat Roads.

Upper Montane Forest

The upper montane forest begins at higher elevations near 6,000 feet (1800 m), where the montane climate is characterized by short, moist, cool summers and cold, wet winters. Snow begins to fall in November and may accumulate to depths up to six feet and remain until June. Pure stands of red fir and lodgepole pine are typical of this forest. Jeffrey pine, which has bark that smells like vanilla, and the picturesque western juniper can also be found in this zone. Beautiful wildflowers bloom in meadows from June through August. Upper montane forests encompass 216,000 acres (87,000 ha) and may be viewed from the Tioga Road east of Crane Flat and in areas north and south of Yosemite Valley, such as along the Glacier Point Road.

Subalpine Forest

The upper montane forest is replaced by the subalpine forest near 8,000 feet (2450 m), where the climate is cooler with an even shorter growing season due to long, cold, and snowy winters. Accumulations of three to nine feet of snow are typical. The western white pine, mountain hemlock, and lodgepole pine are found in this forest with many subalpine meadows that flower from July through August. This zone can be seen from the Tuolumne Meadows area east to Tioga Pass and encompasses 297,000 acres (120,000 ha).

Alpine Zone

The alpine zone of Yosemite begins near the 9,500 foot (2,900 m) elevation and is easily distinguished as it is above tree line. No trees grow in this zone due to the harsh climatic conditions. Short, cool summers with long, cold, and snowy winters are typical at these elevations. Many exposed granitic outcroppings, talus slopes, and boulder fields limit the amount of vegetation that grows here. The herbaceous plants need to flower and produce their seeds quickly during the short, frost-free period of summer. This zone covers 54,362 acres (22,000 ha) in Yosemite and is only viewed up close by hiking or climbing into the high elevations of Yosemite’s wilderness.

Park botanists, in 2010-2012, will be conducting a botanical inventory of the park’s sky-island floras–which are specialized plant communities that occupy dry, cold plateaus at the crest of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite south to Sequoia-Kings Canyon. These plants are highly vulnerable to drying and warming predicted by many climate forecast models. With this type of data, park managers can determine resource protection strategies.

View more about Yosemite National Park’s research and studies.

Click here for more on Yosemite’s day passes, and visiting.

Mask requirements for fully vaccinated visitors vary by park. In all parks, people who are not fully vaccinated must continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. Masks are required for everyone on all forms of enclosed public transportation. Additional details are available at www.nps.gov/coronavirus. Before visiting, please check the park website to determine its operating status. Please recreate responsibly.

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