How This Year’s Academy Awards Could Make Yosemite Even More Crowded
A film that documents one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of all time could drive new traffic to North America’s climbing mecca: Yosemite National Park.
On Sunday, Feb. 24, the feature documentary "Free Solo" took home an Academy Award. The film followed professional American climber Alex Honnold, and his multiyear effort to climb El Capitan alone — a sheer granite monolith in Yosemite — without a harness, rope or protection of any kind. The national park was very much one of the film's stars.
Rock climbing started gaining popularity in Yosemite in the 1950s. But only recently has the sport experienced a large-scale boom. Climbing gyms have been popping up in cities around the world, making the sport accessible even to those who may not be interested in outdoor adventure. Currently, there are more than 600 gyms in the US alone, 24 of which opened in the last year. And in 2020, competitive rock climbing will be introduced to the Olympic Games in Tokyo for the first time, sending it further into the mainstream.
But when “Free Solo” won an Oscar last week, climbers weren’t the only ones paying attention. At the time of the award ceremony, the documentary had already grossed nearly $19 million in ticket sales since its mid-September release. The film, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who are married), follows Honnold on his journey to, well, free solo the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan (affectionately known as El Cap).
In the documentary, scenic shots of Yosemite’s towering granite monoliths — some larger than New York City skyscrapers — are as powerful as those of Honnold's remarkable ascent, in which he followed a series of vertical cracks and miniscule footholds that amount to not much more than an imperfection in the smooth granite. Many climbers will never complete a climb of El Cap with a rope, let alone without one.
While most climbers are already familiar with El Cap and Yosemite, the film captured the attention of nonclimbers. If Yosemite wasn't on your travel radar before, it certainly is now.
“I think the film will bring people to Yosemite,” professional climber Mark Synnott told The Points Guy during a phone call. Synnott, who also covered Honnold’s climb for National Geographic and recounts his time with the climber prior to the ascent in his book, "The Impossible Climb," said that, “What Honnold did was really inspiring. And if [the film] gets people outside to experience the park, I think that’s a great thing.”
Synnott, who grew up climbing frequently in Yosemite and has climbed El Cap 24 times, said that "Free Solo” may have a subtle impact on the number of annual visits to the already overcrowded park. But in the grand scheme of things, he's not too worried. “Just like when a story is published about someone’s secret skiing spot, visits might increase for the next year or so, but then it dies back down,” Synnott told TPG.
With the attention the film has received and the general increase in popularity of rock climbing, it may be best to visit the park sooner rather than later.
According to historical data provided by the National Park Service, Yosemite saw a record-breaking 5 million visitors in 2016. Since 2015, the park hasn’t seen fewer than 4 million visits in a single year.
Of course, you don’t have to scale Yosemite’s big walls to truly appreciate the park’s natural beauty. Staring up at El Cap from Yosemite Valley offers perspective on Honnold’s athletic feat. And if you poke around the outskirts of Camp Four — one of the more significant campgrounds in climbing history — you might even find some impressive, crowd-free views.
If the park’s annual visits do increase beyond the current 4 million, there are still ways to avoid throngs of tourists.
According to Luke Gould, a former Yosemite hiking guide, avoiding the crowds can be difficult — but not impossible. “During the week the crowds are smaller. I would go to Yosemite Valley during the week, but when the park is busier on weekends, I would head to the high country around Tuolumne Meadows,” said Gould.
A few of his favorite spots that tend to see fewer visitors than Yosemite Valley include the area around the Hetch Hetchy Dam and Mono Pass in the high country.
As climbing continues to be propelled into the limelight by films like “Free Solo,” and as more people become inspired to take advantage of our outdoor resources, our national parks will undoubtedly become more crowded. But with a little motivation, it isn’t hard to find your own piece of solitude.