The Face of Free Solo Reveals the Most “Freaking Awesome” National Parks for Climbing

Alex Honnold's epic climb of El Capitan took place in Yosemite National Park

August 15, 2023 6:04 am
Alex Honnold climbing with a helmet on.
Alex Honnold has spent a large portion of his 37 years in National Parks.
National Geographic

Unquestionably the face of “free solo” climbing after starring in a 2018 Oscar-winning documentary bearing the same name as his chosen discipline, 37-year-old Alex Honnold estimates he’s spent seven years of his life in America’s National Parks. Of those seven years, three were spent in Yosemite National Park, where he’d annually live for three months while training and attempting to become the first person to scale the 3,000-foot granite wall known as El Capitan without ropes or other safety gear.

Honnold was able to conquer El Capitan in 2017 in a death-defying climb that was captured in the documentary and his life has changed much since then (a 2020 marriage, an 18-month-old daughter, a signature soap from Dr. Squatch), but he still returns to Yosemite to see his old friend. Though he has yet to free solo El Capitan for a second time, Honnold estimates that he’s climbed to the top of the iconic wall about 20 times since 2017 via different routes with different partners, always using ropes.

Even though Honnold has done it with regularity, getting to the top of El Capitan still means a lot to him. “It’s the biggest stage in the biggest venue. It’s like the most important thing in climbing,” he tells InsideHook. “Yosemite is where you go to perform. It’s like a musician going to play Madison Square Garden. It’s always a pleasure to go somewhere new and play an epic show, but there are certain places that are just so, so mega. It doesn’t mean the other shows aren’t epic and that you can’t have great experiences, but Yosemite is just amazing. No matter how much time you spend in Yosemite, you can get your ass kicked every time you go back. It’s really freaking hard.”

Does Honnold have love for any of the lesser-known National Parks in America’s system? We asked him.

InsideHook: You’ve climbed all over the planet. Is Yosemite still your favorite place to go?

Alex Honnold: Yosemite National Park, I think by any metric, is the best park in the world. The walls are insane. They’re incredible. They’re the biggest, most sheer, most striking. Though technically there are bigger and steeper walls out there, there’s nowhere with the concentration and quality that Yosemite has. I think it’s the best rock climbing in the world. Part of what makes it such a destination for climbing is the combination of the walls with the park’s relative ease of access. You can fly into San Francisco and drive there in three hours if there’s no traffic so it’s relatively easy to get to and to get supplies. Normally, to climb big walls of that scale and quality, you have to go to a remote place like the middle of nowhere in Greenland or Baffin Island or Pakistan or the southern tip of Patagonia. In Yosemite, the town’s nearby. You can get a pizza at the diner after you climb. It’s a super easy place, logistically, to climb.

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IH: Is your love of Yellowstone a reason you partnered with Dr. Squatch on the Free Solo Scrub line?

AH: It does remind me of Yosemite and it’s pretty lovely and smells great. I have it in my van for whenever I’m showering. I’m not too serious about my hygiene, but when I do shower, it is nice. Having it definitely makes it feel like I’ve arrived in some way, maybe a bad way, I’m not sure. But to be fair, I have a wife and kid at home. I think it makes sense to have nice soap in your shower if you own a shower.

IH: Do you have a second-favorite National Park to climb in?

AH: Zion in southern Utah. It has the same sorts of walls as Yosemite. They’re not quite as big and not quite as great for climbing, but still really scenic, really inspiring and there’s just a great aesthetic. Zion is this incredible mix of greens and reds. There’s a reason that the early pioneers called it Zion. I think Moonlight Buttress is the park’s most famous and striking climb. If you climb Moonlight, then you’re right near the really cool part of the hike into Angels Landing. One of the coolest things in Zion is the hike on Angels Landing. It’s a huge fin of rock that sticks out of the rim of the canyon. It’s cliche because everybody hikes Angels Landing, but there’s a reason — it’s freaking awesome.

IH: Are National Parks generally the best places to climb in the United States?

AH: Yeah. National parks are freaking awesome. I would say that they are the crown jewels of rock climbing in the U.S. The thing is, national parks represent the destinations that people want to travel to. Most climbing days are probably spent at places closer to home like quarries and road cuts and scrappy little cliffs that happen to be close to town. Most people climb a cliff like that because they can get there after work. National parks represent what people aspire to in climbing. Climbing the Grand Teton or climbing El Capitan or even climbing in Joshua Tree. It’s like a fantasy land of jumbled boulders. As a kid, the joy of Joshua Tree was scrambling over all the piles of rocks and playing around. As a rock climber, it’s basically the same thing, but just a little more technical and vertical.

Alex Honnold and his van.
Alex Honnold and his van have visited many of the National Parks in the U.S.
Dr. Squatch

IH: In general, is there one feature that many of the National Parks share?

AH: The ease of access, the ease of use, the convenience and the quality. The U.S. National Park system is truly one of the best features of America, I think. I’ve been to maybe six different places around the world that call themselves “the Yosemite of” wherever — like “the Yosemite of Russia” or “the Yosemite of Chile.” You always show up and you’re like, “This is not Yosemite. It’s not even close.” When you compare the quality of the climbing in national parks in the U.S., you’re typically disappointed if you go abroad. I totally agree with the sentiment that the National Park system is one of America’s best ideas.

IH: Is there a park you haven’t visited that’s on your bucket list?

AH: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  It’s in Colorado and I’ve never been. It has giant 2,000-foot walls that are sort of Yosemite-esque. People have been telling me I need to go there and climb for years and I’ve just never made it. It’s kind of far away in a way and the seasons haven’t quite lined up. I freaking love national parks. I think they’re one of the best things about America.

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