With its 360-degree views of the Tuolumne backcountry, the 10,940-foot summit of Cathedral Peak is the best place to fully appreciate the majesty of Yosemite National Park. There's the granite spire of Eichorn Pinnacle, sapphire-blue Cathedral Lake, andway off in the distancethe unmistakable bald pate of 8,842-foot Half Dome. Of course, getting there involves rock climbing up at least 22 pitches.
Just because you don't climb now doesn't mean you can't learn. "People are surprised by how quickly they progress in our classes," says Doug Kerr, who has been with the Yosemite Mountaineering School for 20 years. Keep expectations reasonablethere's no way you'll be leading your kids up Yosemite routes after a week. But clawing up a face while safely tied into an experienced guide's belay line? No problem. (Kids should be, at minimum, a mature ten years old.)
Schedule your Yosemite climbing adventure for July or August, when the Yosemite Mountaineering School expands its operation from the crowded Valley (the park gets 3.5 million visitors annually) to the alpine meadows of Tuolumne. If your only experience with rock is through the speakers of a stereo, begin with the intro class; plan on a six-hour day of climbing instruction. You'll be scaling heights up to 60 feet by day's end. Even more fun, you'll experience the rush of rappelling down.
Subsequent classes teach increasingly sophisticated techniques such as crack climbing, multipitch climbing, and self-rescue. Reserve some of your vacation fund to hire a guide from the school after you graduateit's the most expedient way to see parts of Yosemite that most people only dream about.
Pitch your tent at Tuolumne Meadows Campground, convenient to both the school and some of the West Coast's most memorable backcountry hiking. Get the ground perspective of Cathedral Peak, one of John Muir's favorite mountains: Just 3.5 miles from the campground at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead, there is a simple seven-mile out-and-back hike to stunning views at Upper Cathedral Lake.
LODGING Yosemite National Park (209-372-0200, www.nps.gov/yose) maintains 304 campsites at Tuolumne Meadows, with flush toilets, drinking water, and a general store. Half the sites can be reserved in advance for $18 a night; call 800-436-7275.
OUTFITTER Classes at Yosemite Mountaineering School (209-372-8344, www.yosemitemountaineering.com) average about $90 per person per day, including equipment (shoe rental is extra). Private guides start at $100 per person per six-hour session.