📸Yosemite Firefall: Ultimate Guide to First Time 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.

Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂

🔥 About Yosemite Firefall

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.

Witnessing this miracle of nature is worthy of every bucket list, but careful preparation and a bit of luck are needed.

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

🎟 Yosemite Firefalls 2024 Permits

Incredible Yosemite Firefall photography at sunset.
Weekend permits are required for visiting Yosemite Firefall in 2023.

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 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 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.

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

The remaining 50% of reservations will be made available at 8am PST two days prior to the reservation date. For example, on Feb 23 reservations can be made for Feb 25.

The reservations cost $2 each which is payable at booking. Entrance to the park is paid on arrival unless you already have an Annual National Parks Pass.

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.

Additionally, canceled reservations become available immediately on Recreation.gov.

You can find out more information about reservations for Firefall on the official NPS website here.

🎟 Pro tip: To avoid disappointment, ensure you have an account and are logged in to be ready to get a reservation promptly at 8am PST. Reservations typically sell out within minutes.

🧗 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.

Do you need a reservation to see Firefalls?

In 2024, reservations are required to see Firefalls 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.


☀️ What are the 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.

Be sure to read on to understand everything that should be considered when planning your trip to Yosemite National Park.


🌅 What time is best for viewing 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.


💦 What factors create Yosemite Firefall?

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

I 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.

Cloud Cover

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!


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

Arguably as important as 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.



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. 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:

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


🚗 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

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A view of Yosemite Firefall from near the Merced River.

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.

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 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.

Bring Snow Chains!

As Firefall occurs in February in the Sierras, snow is always a possibility. You are required to carry snow chains during the winter months, even if you do not think they are necessary!

While I cannot verify this personally, the camp host who checked 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.


🎞 Camera Gear for Photographing Yosemite Firefalls

Photographer Adam Marland equips a polarizing filter CPL to his Sony Camera.

While it is possible to capture some great photos nowadays with smartphones, for the best possible photos I recommend considering a few key pieces of photography gear:

  • Camera: We use the Sony a7riii and have been in love with it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start getting to grips with manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
  • Lens: The lens we use most frequently is the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS as the zoom lens allows for the most diversity. We also often use the Laowa 15mm F2 for shots that require a wider angle.
  • Tripod: A tripod is essential if you are shooting in low light, at night, or for any other long exposure photography. When traveling, we use the Manfrotto Be Free as it’s lightweight and easy to carry on longer hikes. For times when we require something more stable, we use the Artcise Carbon Fiber Tripod.
  • Filters: A Circular Polarizing (CPL) filter (CPL) or Neutral Density (ND) filter are very useful for allowing slower shutter speeds and for cutting glare on reflective surfaces, helping to bring out the colors. The best CPL and ND filters we have found are the quartz line from Polar Pro.

Don’t forget to also pack your America the Beautiful Annual Pass to avoid paying the individual park fees at Yosemite.


🎇 Yosemite Firefall Timelapse

Below is a timelapse showcasing the Yosemite Firefall during a spectacular sunset.

*If you do not see a video, you need to turn off your ad-blocker for this site.*

📚 More Yosemite & California Guides

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below 🙂

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)

Southern California Guides

Northern California Guides

Finally, feel free to browse our Yosemite professional photography gallery or Northern California gallery for prints and inspiration

🤔 Final Thoughts on visiting the Firefalls of Yosemite

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

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below 🙂

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!

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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 to First Time 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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