📸Yosemite Firefall: Ultimate Guide for First Visits in 2024

The seasonal event known colloquially as the Yosemite Firefall is perhaps the most impressive natural phenomenon to occur in any US National Park.

I visit Yosemite every year during peak viewing times to photograph and research the Yosemite Firefall. This comprehensive guide is the result of that effort.

In this guide, I will tell you everything you need to know about witnessing the Yosemite Firefall. This includes information on reservations, best viewing angles, conditions that need to be met, and so much more.

🔥 About Yosemite Firefall 2024

Horsetail Falls is illuminated with vibrant orange light.
Horsetail Falls is illuminated with vibrant orange light.

The modern Firefall event is NOT to be confused with the original, manmade version of “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 present-day event is simply an illusion of sunlight that occurs each year if Horsetail Falls is flowing.

During most of February, the sun’s specific angle of descent (or “azimuth”) causes the seasonally-occurring Horsetail Falls to become side-lit, making it appear as if it were ablaze.

The result of numerous conditions all aligning at once is a symphony of events that creates the illusion of a waterfall on fire!

Current Conditions

With the colder temperatures, there has been less ice melt to fuel the waterfall than in previous years. However, as of February 11, 2024, Horsetail Falls has a light flow and there have been some impressive views this weekend.

There is more precipitation predicted next week. If this remains as rain or light snow, it could improve the conditions.

Conversely, if this is primarily snow with freezing temperatures, it could cause the current flow to cease and freeze. It’s therefore worth keeping an eye on the weather forecasts while planning your visit to Yosemite.

🎟 Yosemite Firefalls Permits & Reservations

Incredible Yosemite Firefall photography at sunset.

The Yosemite Firefall attracts thousands of visitors to the park at a time when most of the roads are closed due to weather. This sudden flood of visitors causes traffic, parking issues, safety concerns, and impacts the natural and cultural resources.

To help combat this, the NPS occasionally implements a temporary reservation system in February.

Do I need a permit for Yosemite Firefall in 2024?

Day-use reservations are required during weekends in February 2024 to visit Yosemite National Park to see Firefall.

In 2024, reservations are required during the following weekends:

  • February 10–11
  • February 17–19
  • February 24–25

Even if you do not intend to visit Horsetail Falls, reservations will still be required during these dates. Reservations must be made through Recreation.gov.

How do Reservations Work for February 2024 Visits?

🗓 At 8am PST on Dec 1, 2023, the first 50% of day-use reservations were made available for all three weekends.

⏱ The remaining reservations will be made available at 8am PST two days prior to the reservation date.
For example, reservations can be made for Feb 25 on Feb 23.

💵 Reservations cost $2 each. Entrance to the park is paid on arrival unless you already have an Annual National Parks Pass.

🎟 A stand-by list of cancellations and missed arrivals is kept to allow last-minute arrangements. If you do not have a ticket, you can try to get in as a “walk-up,” or by calling ahead.

🧗 Yosemite Firefall FAQs

A telephoto perspective on Firefalls in Yosemite.
A telephoto perspective on Firefalls in Yosemite.

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?

Yosemite Firefall can be seen whenever conditions align throughout the month of February, but peak intensity occurs from Feb 14 – Feb 28. In most years, Feb 21 is highlighted as the most dramatic potential display.

What time is Firefall in Yosemite?

Golden colors begin transforming the waterfall about 35 minutes before sunset, with orange and red coloration occurring 10-15 minutes before sunset.

In mid-February, sunset in Yosemite NP is around 5:30-5:45pm.

What causes the Yosemite Firefalls illusion?

The Firefalls effect is caused by the sun's azimuth, side-lighting Horsetail Falls.
The Yosemite Firefalls effect is caused by the sun’s azimuth (angle of descent) side-lighting the cascading water of Horsetail Falls.

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 the Yosemite Firefall phenomenon.

Whether or not Horsetail Falls is flowing, however, is entirely dependent on recent precipitation and snowmelt.

Where do you go to view Yosemite Firefall?

A popular view for viewing the Firefalls of Yosemite.
There are endless promising vantage points to view Firefalls, but the most common viewing areas dot the North River Drive.

You will be able to see Horsetail Falls from many other locations in the park, including Four Mile Hike.

Be aware that the park has closed the most popular viewing areas on the river due to damage.

Where do you park for Firefalls?

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.


☀️ Best Dates to See Firefall in Yosemite

A soft red glow kisses the rock face just before sunset.
A soft red glow kisses the rock face just before sunset.

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 its 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.


🌅 Best Time of Day for Yosemite Firefall

Golden Hour tones light up El Capitan and Horsetail Falls.
Golden Hour tones light up El Capitan and Horsetail Falls.

The waterfall will take on some yellow color early on, but the orange and red tones that create the illusion of fire occur at the end of the 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.


💦 Conditional Factors for Firefalls Occurring

One can be forgiven for mistaking Horsetail Falls firefalls for lava!
One can be forgiven for mistaking Horsetail Falls for lava!

There are many factors that will determine whether or not you will experience the Yosemite Firefall event on any given evening.

As best you can, try to plan your visit(s) with all of the following factors considered.

Cloud Cover

This is 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 sets.

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 that will allow the sun to break through momentarily.

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!


Low water flow detracts from the full impact of Firefalls.
Low water flow detracts from the full impact of Firefalls.

The precipitation the Yosemite Valley recently received is almost as important as the cloud cover.

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 they followed a couple of weeks of snow.


This is the one that I feel 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.

Viewing Angle

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. Most years, I feel that getting beside the Firefall is the best option.

The side-on view accentuates the Firefall by blocking out the light from more of the surrounding rock face, creating a chamber of light.

Compare these two photos, one facing directly on and one from the side of it:

Two views of Yosemite Firefall side by side.
Left: Straight on view of Firefalls / Right: Side on view of Firefalls

There will be plenty of places to shoot from, which I will 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 due to damage along the river bank from overcrowding.

This was done to prevent large crowds from further eroding and collapsing the delicate riverbanks.

Viewing from North River Road

A view of the Yosemite Firefalls from North River Road.
A view of the Yosemite Firefall 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).

Yosemite Firefalls from the El Capitan Picnic Area.
Firefalls from the El Capitan Picnic Area.

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

A view of Yosemite Firefall from up the Four Mile Hike trail.
A view of Firefalls from up the Four Mile Hike 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!

The Four Mile Hike view provides unbeatable views of the Yosemite Valley.
The Four Mile Hike view provides unbeatable views of the Yosemite Valley.

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 tree line. There are enough though, especially if you get an early start and make a day of it.


🚗 Where to park for Yosemite 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.

Due to the reservation system, there should always be more spaces than vehicles. It is about a 1.5-mile walk from any of these lots 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 beyond the road closure area where South River Road connects to North River Road. If you arrive 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.

🏡 Where to Stay for Firefalls

A view of Yosemite Firefall from near the Merced River.

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 one of these options.

Even campgrounds in Yosemite that typically operate on a first-come-first-serve basis will require reservations for the weekends of Firefalls. You can find out more about this on the NPS website.

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.


📚 More Yosemite & California Guides

Before you go, you may want to have a look at some of our other guides to Yosemite National Park.

Additionally, you will find similar travel guides to other local and statewide treasures if this is just one stop on your California road trip!

Yosemite National Park Guides

Mammoth Lakes Guide (near Yosemite)

Northern California Guides

🤔 Final Thoughts on visiting the Firefalls of Yosemite

Horsetail Falls blowing in the wind as the golden hour begins.

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Despite having seen so many miracles of nature, I can honestly say that witnessing the Firefall of Yosemite was one of the most special natural events I have ever witnessed.

I hope this guide helps you plan your visit.

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Written by
Adam Marland is a professional travel blogger and landscape photographer from Oregon. After over a decade of experience as a freelance travel photographer, Adam found national acclaim when he became the National Park Foundation's “Chief Exploration Officer” in 2021.

6 thoughts on “📸Yosemite Firefall: Ultimate Guide for First Visits in 2024”

    • You would want to check the NPS website for specific road closures as this can change daily, but the one coming from El Portal is consistently the best. It is the lowest elevation and has the most nearby services.

  1. Can I go during the week on February 20, 21 and 23rd without a permit to the picnick area for day use to photograph the fire falls?


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