Outdoor adventurers are setting their sights on Yosemite National Park this month for a chance to witness the awe-inspiring “Firefall” at Horsetail Fall. This natural spectacle, which draws hundreds to Yosemite Valley each year, creates the illusion of a fiery cascade flowing off the eastern edge of El Capitan, thanks to a unique alignment of the setting sun and the waterfall’s mist.
Horsetail Fall, which only flows during the winter and spring months due to snowmelt, transforms into a glowing stream of “lava” for a few precious moments before sunset, given the right conditions. For the magic to happen, there must be enough water, clear skies, and just the right temperatures to prevent the fall from freezing.
With recent storms, it looks like the Firefall will appear this year, although it’s difficult to say when the weather will be perfect to witness the stunning event. Here are the weather scenarios needed for the natural phenomenon to pop:
- A snow-covered eastern slope of El Capitan is essential.
- Two consecutive days with temperatures above freezing are necessary to ensure optimal water flow, with the viewing day’s temperature remaining above 35°F.
- Partial cloud cover enhances the visual effect, though clear skies contribute to a stronger water flow.
- The perfect alignment of these conditions during the third week of February maximizes the duration of the viewing window.
The prime viewing window for this phenomenon is from mid-February to the end of the month, with the best light occurring 5 to 15 minutes before the sun dips below the horizon. Visitors hoping to catch this stunning display are advised to arrive in the late morning or early afternoon to secure both parking and a good vantage point.
In the past few years during the Firefall, the surge in visitation has led to full parking lots, parking overflowing into traffic lanes, pedestrian-vehicle conflicts causing safety issues, and damage to natural and cultural resources. The growing interest in the natural phenomenon has caused massive traffic issues during the typical off-time for Yosemite National Park.
Due to the popularity of “Firefall” and the limited access to Yosemite Valley, the National Park Service requires reservations for entry on weekends and Washington’s Birthday. Here’s how the reservation system will work: Visitors must secure reservations to access the park on the weekends of February 10-11, February 17-18, and February 24-25. This requirement applies to all visitors, including those not specifically visiting Horsetail Fall. Weekday visitors will not need reservations, except for Monday, February 19 (Presidents Day).
To facilitate the process, half of the available reservations for these dates became accessible at 8 a.m. on Friday, December 1. There is a $2 reservation fee, and visitors will also be responsible for the standard entrance fee of $35 per vehicle upon arrival at the park.
For those planning to make the trip, the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau recommends coming prepared with flashlights, warm boots, foldable chairs or insulated pads, and sufficient food and water. Given the chilly temperatures after sunset, warm clothing, hats, and gloves are also essential to enjoy the spectacle comfortably.
This fleeting and mesmerizing event is a reminder of nature’s beauty and the unique experiences that await in the great outdoors, especially in the stunning backdrop of Yosemite National Park.