A seasonal event known colloquially as the Yosemite Firefall is perhaps the most impressive natural phenomenon to occur in a National Park that already hosts a plethora of nature’s greatest marvels.
This natural event is NOT to be confused with the original “Yosemite Firefall”, which began in 1872 and lasted almost a century. While the original ceremony consisted of hotel staff members actually dumping burning embers from the top of Glacier Point, the modern-day event is simply an illusion of light.
During most of February, the sun’s specific angle of descent causes the seasonally-occurring Horsetail Falls to become side-lit. The result of numerous conditions all aligning at once is a symphony of events that creates the illusion of a waterfall on fire!
Witnessing this miracle of nature is worthy of every bucket list, but careful preparation and a bit of luck are needed. I spent seven days in Yosemite in 2021 during peak viewing, researching and photographing the Yosemite Firefall. The effort resulted in dozens of beloved photos, as well as this comprehensive guide.
In this travel and photography guide, first-time visitors will learn how to responsibly and successfully experience this fantastic natural show!
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Yosemite Firefall Timelapse
Below is a timelapse showcasing the Yosemite Firefall during a spectacular sunset.
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Yosemite Firefall FAQs
Below are quick-answers to some of the most commonly-asked questions for visiting Firefalls. Read on to discover more informative answers to each.
Where is Yosemite Firefalls?
The natural event known as Firefalls occurs in Yosemite National Park in the Yosemite Valley area. For first-time visitors, the Yosemite Valley is a loop drive that follows the Merced River and features the most popular sites and trails.
It may be useful to study the Yosemite National Park map prior to visiting.
When does the Yosemite Firefall occur?
Firefall can be seen in mid-to-late February, but peak intensity occurs around Feb 21.
What time is Firefall in Yosemite?
Golden colors start about 35 minutes before sunset, with orange and red coloration occurring 10-15 minutes before sunset. In mid-February, sunset in Yosemite is around 5:30-5:45pm.
What causes Firefall?
The sun’s seasonal, directional light creates the illusion of the water being on fire.
Which waterfall is Firefall?
The seasonally-occurring Horsetail Falls is the waterfall that creates this phenomenon. Whether or not it exists at all in February depends on recent precipitation.
Where do you go to view Yosemite Firefall?
You will be able to see Horsetail Falls from endless locations. Hoever, the park has closed many viewing areas near the river. The most common viewing areas dot the North River Drive.
Where do you park for Firefall?
The park provides ample parking lots that should not fill up since they limit daily visitors during this time. You will see signs for parking all over the North River Road near the Yosemite Lodge.
How far do you have to hike for Firefalls?
It is about a 1.5 mile walk each way from the main parking lots to the most common viewing areas.
Do you need a reservation to see Firefalls?
YES! To prevent overcrowding and limit environmental impact, reservations are required for February visits to Yosemite National Park. Visit the NPS website for more information on obtaining reservations.
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What are the best dates to see Firefall in Yosemite?
Generally speaking, the Firefalls effect takes place in varying intensity throughout the entire month of February.
However, based on the sun’s azimuth (scientific word for it’s angle relative to Earth) the ideal date for seeing the Firefalls is February 21, with the entire week from Feb 18-25 being considered “best viewing.”
There is a major caveat to this. The sun’s azimuth is only one consideration in determining the intensity of the Firefalls effect. While the week mentioned above should provide the best light, many factors must align to get a good show and photograph. Be sure to read on to understand everything that should be considered when planning your trip to Yosemite.
What time is best for viewing Yosemite Firefall?
The waterfall will take on some yellow color early on, but the orange and red tones that create the illusion of fire occurs at the end of golden hour.
It is worth noting that, contrary to the name, golden hour is nowhere-near an hour during the short winter days. Expect the golden-yellow light to begin about 30-35 minutes prior to sunset.
For the orange and red color that creates the illusion of a lava flow, you can expect to witness this during the 10-15 minute window prior to sunset. As a photographer, I found this time to be the best for photos as the sky and clouds begin to catch color as well.
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What factors create Yosemite Firefall?
We have already covered the reason the illusion exists. However, there are many other factors that determine whether or not you will experience the event on any given evening.
As best you can, try to plan your visit(s) with all of the following factors considered.
This is definitely the most important factor for creating the Firefall effect. Even on a mostly-clear day, thick clouds on the Western horizon can completely ruin the show if they block sunlight as the sun is setting.
However, you should NOT give up even if the sun seems blocked going into golden hour. Oftentimes, there is a small opening just at the horizon line which will not be visible from the park, but will allow the sun to break through.
Twice in my week photographing the Firefalls, I watched people pack up early to begin walking back to the car, only to miss a spectacular (albeit short) burst of light at the last moment!
Arguably as important a the cloud cover is the amount of precipitation the Yosemite Valley has received recently. Horsetail Falls is not a permanent waterfall. Insufficient rain or snow will leave you watching a bare rock face catch some interesting light.
While recent rain or snowfall will help, what you are truly hoping for is a clear window after a wet winter. Barring that, the days following heavy rainfall can also be good once the skies clear.
For perspective, the photos you have seen throughout this blog were taken during a very dry winter, but followed a couple weeks of snow. The falls are incredibly slender, but the warm days caused just enough snowmelt by sunset each night to provide enough water to catch the sunlight.
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This is the one that doesn’t get discussed enough. Because Horsetail Falls is usually very slender, even a modest wind will cause the water to blow sideways rather than running its course down the rock wall.
It is very common to have no wind in the valley, but to have a high wind whipping off the top of El Capitan. As a result, you may not see any water at all if the gusts are strong enough to carry the water away before it has a chance to plunge.
The one factor you have the most control over is your viewing angle. I would argue that there is no “best,” as it depends on your conditions. With such a small display as we received in 2021, I felt that getting almost beside the Firefall was the best option.
I also think that a side-on view accentuates the Firefall by blocking out the light from more of the surrounding rock face, creating a chamber of light (so to speak.)
Compare these two photos, one facing directly on and one from the side of it:
There will be plenty of places to shoot from which we discuss in the next section of this guide. Which you choose should depend on the conditions or your personal photographic preference.
Best Places to Photograph Yosemite Firefall
What I found very fun about photographing Yosemite Firefall was that everyone I met during each night of shooting was convinced that they were in the best spot. Realistically, there are many compositions that all have different strengths and weaknesses.
Viewing from Sentinel Beach (no longer available)
I should mention that some of the most popular viewing areas were along the riverbank at Sentinel Beach. However, the Yosemite Park Service now closes this area in February!
This was done to prevent large crowds from further eroding and collapsing the delicate riverbanks.
Viewing from North River Road
You will have a plethora of options to view the Firefalls event from along the North River Road. If the flow of water in Horsetail Falls is strong, you may prefer a view that looks directly at the falls. A popular one is anywhere near the El Capitan Picnic Area.
Of course, many people simply watch from the roadside. The road creates a break in the tree-line, limiting viewing obstructions.
If the water flow is dwindling, a side angle may be preferred. The El Capitan Picnic Area can be good for this as well. However, this is very close to the falls so much of the water will be hidden by a rock outcropping. Consider backtracking while looking for a clear view (walking back toward the Yosemite Lodge).
The major strength of photographing the event from the El Capitan Picnic Area is that you are near the falls. This means you can get nice tight shots that prominently feature the waterfalls without needing a large telephoto lens.
The disadvantages are the size of the crowds and being somewhat limited with creative compositions outside of framing it with some trees.
Viewing from Four-Mile Trail
The other popular view of the Firefalls is from the Four-Mile Trail, which leads high into the mountains to provide a bit more context and scenery.
The benefit of this vantage point is that you see more of the beautiful Yosemite Valley, and also a lot more of the sky. I would chose this option anytime there appeared to be a lot of cloud action or potential sky drama!
There are some drawbacks, however. First, it can be slippery or even dangerous in the winter, particularly if you venture too far. The trail is only open for the first 1.5 miles, but many continue well past this point and I witnessed a helicopter rescue effort as a result on my third night. Don’t be that person!
The other drawback is that there are not many views that clear the treeline. There are enough though, especially if you get an early start and make a day of it.
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Where to park and walk for the Firefalls
The general parking area will be any one of several lots located near the Yosemite Valley Lodge (but not in the lodge itself!). The park provides ample signage and lots of space.
Each day, the park will close one lane of traffic on North River Road for pedestrian-only traffic. This is a 3 mile stretch that begins just past the lodge and ends where South River Drive connects to North River Drive.
As long as they continue to require reservations for February visits, there should always be more spaces than vehicles. From any of these lots, it is about a 1.5 mile walk to the most common viewing areas along North River Road.
There are also about 5 or 6 ADA parking areas available along the North River Road nearer to the falls, but even these fill up fast!
There is a fair amount of parking PAST the road closure area where South River Road connects to North River Road. If you get there early enough (usually before 1pm on weekdays, before noon on weekends), you can probably get a spot.
Be aware that this is still about a 1.2 mile walk. While very little distance is spared, at least you can get out of the park quicker by being ahead of the road closure and busiest parking areas.
Other Useful Tips for Seeing Yosemite Firefall
By this point, you should have a good indication of where, when, and how to experience the Yosemite Firefall phenomenon. Below is a bit of general information worth considering when planning your visit.
Getting Reservations for Firefalls & Yosemite National Park
While this may be subject to change, Yosemite National Park currently requires reservations for visiting the park during the primary weeks of Firefalls.
In 2021, the reservations were only $2 each and became available at 8am on Monday, Feb 8. They were sold out within minutes for most dates. The reservation could be made for any day of the month and granted you access to the park for 7 days beyond that. However, you have to arrive on the date of your reservation to validate it!
If you do not have a reservation, they do keep a list of cancellations and missed arrivals. You may, therefore, get lucky as a “walk-up” assuming there were cancellations (which is very typical), or you can call the park to arrange.
Where to stay near Yosemite National Park
There is camping, cabins, and a hotel all within the Yosemite Valley area. These book up 5-6 months in advance, typically, so you will really have to be forward-thinking to procure on of these options.
Be warned: You are NOT allowed to freedom camp anywhere within Yosemite National Park.
This means you must completely leave the park gates to avoid potential fines. Vehicle and freedom camping is not permitted, even if you are self-contained.
The nearest place to stay is in the town of El Portal. The drive follows Hwy 140 downhill and is safe even in the winter months. The total distance is about 14 miles from the Yosemite Valley Lodge and takes about 20-25 minutes with no traffic.
Once you have left the gated park boundaries, you will find many campers and vehicles parked up for the night. There are also affordable hotels in town.
Bring Snow Chains!
As Firefalls occurs in February in the Sierras, snow is always a possibility. You are required to carry snowchains during the winter months, even if you do no think they are necessary!
While I cannot verify this personally, the camp host who verified my reservation informed me that a ranger can stop you at any time and ask to see that you have brought chains. I’m not sure how often they check, but I was glad I remembered to bring mine even though I had no need to use them.
Below you will find some more regional guides that you might find useful:
- The perfect one day itinerary for YOSEMITE National Park.
- Yosemite Photography Guide: Tips For Photographing the Yosemite Valley
- Best Things to Do on a Northern California Road Trip
- The Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls in NorCal
- Shasta-Trinity National Forest Photography Guide
For those interested in photography, you may find our Learning Photography guides helpful too. We cover lots of different topics, from basics to advanced!
Finally, feel free to browse our Northern California professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration 🙂
Final Thoughts on visiting the Firefalls of Yosemite
In all our years of travel, one of the travel lessons we’ve learned is it is an unavoidable tragedy to become desensitized to some things. However, despite having seen so many miracles of nature, I can say in all honesty that witnessing the Firefall of Yosemite was one of the most special natural events I have ever witnessed. It’s up there with photographing the northern lights!
Even though I photographed them 7 times over 7 days, each sunset was special. I will definitely be monitoring winter weather each year and plan on returning the next time Horsetail Falls gets a bit more body.
I hope this guide helps you plan your visit and encourage you to provide any feedback, corrections, or questions in the comments!