The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Yosemite’s Firefall

The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Yosemite’s Firefall

February 22, 20221449Views

You’ve probably seen the pictures and assumed it was some clever Photoshop technique, but Firefall is a very real event. This guide will provide everything you need to know to experience this natural phenomenon in Yosemite National Park for yourself.

What is Firefall?

Let’s start off with what Firefall is. Each year, light from the setting sun illuminates Horsetail Fall at Yosemite in a way to create a fiery glow that looks like red lava pouring down the mountain. This event is finicky: however, certain conditions must align to trigger the Firefall.

First, there needs to be good snowpack on the upper levels of the canyon. The temperature also needs to be warm enough to melt that snowpack during the day. Without the melt, the water wouldn’t flow and make its 1570 ft. descent down the east side of El Capitan.

Second, there should be clear skies on the western horizon sothe sun can reach its destination and light up the falling water. Yosemite weather can be very moody. Just because it was cloudy during the day, that doesn’t mean it won’t clear up later in the evening.

When all these conditions are met, you will get between 8-12 minutes of one of the most spectacular views you’ll ever witness, and a memory that will stay with you for a lifetime.

When is Firefall?

Technically, the setting sun falls at the right angle two times in the same year: once in February and again in October. Due to the conditions needed, October is very rare considering Horsetail Fall is usually dried up by then. This leaves February where conditions are typically prime. The window for Firefall is usually between February 10th-28th. The middle of that range is the most ideal. The event occurs at sunset during this timeframe and usually lasts somewhere between 8-12 minutes.

Where is Firefall?

Every year, hundreds of spectators flock to Yosemite National Park to witness the Firefall occurrence. Because of the amount of visitors, precautions are made to help the flow of traffic and prevent congestion. The road from the Yosemite Village to the El Capitan viewing area is blocked off to anyone trying to park that is not handicapped and is drive-through only.

If your goal is to stay and watch this event, you will need to park towards the Village or Visitor Center and walk down the designated lane to the viewing area. All access from the opposite side of the river will also be blocked from spectators to help prevent damage to those frail ecosystems.

How Can I Prepare?

You’ve got the basics of what, when, and where Firefall is. Now, it’s time to get into how you can best prepare yourself for the show.

Arrive Early

You won’t be alone when viewing Firefall, so be sure to arrive early. This will help you park closer and save you some extra steps. Once I made the mistake of showing up closer to sunset and had to walk an extra four miles roundtrip. It’s also important to arrive early if you’re a photographer and hoping to capture some epic angles because you’ll be able to stake claim to the perfect spot instead of trying to find whatever is left available. I typically try to find parking around 2 pm.

Check the Weather

As stated before, Yosemite is a very moody place when it comes to weather so keeping an eye on the forecast is never bad move.  Rain or snow is good for Horsetail Fall, but it’s not good for the light needed to shine onto it. Being prepared with forecast information before you enter the park will help give you the best chance of successfully seeing Firefall.

What to Bring

I’m going to break this part down into two categories. The first is for everyone, and the next is directed toward photographers.

  • Chair – You will be waiting for a long period of time so it’s smart to bring something to help you pass the time more comfortably.
  • Layered Clothing – Remember it’s winter so the temperatures will be anywhere from 50 degrees down to 25 degrees. The walk back in the dark is particularly cold as temperatures quickly drop after the sun sets.
  • Gloves – Keep those hands warm. Sitting around waiting in the cold can really put a frost to your fingers.
  • Food and Drink – You will be a little over a mile or more from your vehicle for upwards of 3-4 hours. It’s good to have snacks and fluids on hand.
  • Extra Bag – Remember you are in nature and it’s best to Leave No Trace. Bring an extra bag for any trash you may have. Help make sure the lands stay clean of any litter.
  • Hiking Boots – Although its mainly a flat walk on asphalt, hiking shoes will protect you from the cold when other shoes simply will not. Plus, it will help make the roughly 3+ miles roundtrip hike more bearable to the feet.
  • First Aid Kit – Injuries happen, and you are in nature. Always better to be safe than sorry.

For Photographers

  • Tripod – You’ll want to set this up where you plan to shoot: that way, you can mark your ground and claim your space.
  • Snowshoes – You can also capture Firefall by hiking up the four-mile trail. Conditions can be very snowy and icy up there so you will definitely want these should you choose to take that route.
  • Multiple lenses – I prefer to shoot Firefall very close, so 100-400mm is my ideal lens. You can shoot wide but anything beyond 24mm may be a bit unnecessary.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a basic rundown of what Firefall is and how to best prepare yourself to see it, try to remember that you are also in Yosemite National Park. There are so many amazing spots to see and explore throughout the day while you wait for the sun to set. It’s ideal to plan for a few days at the park. I personally prefer to stay around the El Portal entrance since it’s the easiest to navigate into the park should the conditions become icy. If you can only swing it for one day, then try to stay on top of the weather prior to travel and figure out what might be the best day for you to go based on all of the information provided. 

Article and Photos by Michael Castaneda

Michael Castaneda is an award winning adventure/travel photographer based in Los Angeles, California. His passion to capture raw emotion in nature is what drives him to continually push himself in both photography and exploration.