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Tips for Seeing Firefall | Yosemite in February & A Realistic Fail Story

Updated: Mar 15

I had seen images of Firefall across social media for years. For some reason it felt so surreal that I didn't think of going to see it for myself. Like catching the northern lights or an erupting volcano, Firefall was something out of reach except through the screen of my smartphone.


Until I realized it wasn't. Yosemite is just a few hours drive from where I live and Firefall is a fairly predictable phenomenon, occurring on specific days each year at the same time of day.


Finally this year I decided I would make the trek out to catch it and check it off my proverbial bucket list. ✅


Today we're going to go over some tips for maximizing your chances of seeing Firefall and I'm going to share the story of my personal attempt (and fail) to see it this year.


Table of Contents:


What is Firefall?


Firefall is an incredible spectacle that happens for a short window in February at Yosemite National Park. Horsetail Fall appears to transform into a stream of glowing lava during the few minutes before sunset each day during this time.


But conditions have to be perfect.


The sun has to hit the rock face in just the right way to light up the water. That means no storm clouds blocking the sun. The NPS website also notes that "even some haze or minor cloudiness can greatly diminish or eliminate the effect."


There also has to be enough water flowing in Horsetail Fall that the light can reflect off of. If there wasn't a wet winter or enough snow melt to get the waterfall going, there won't be much of a show at Firefall.


When is Firefall?


The second half of February gives visitors the opportunity to see Firefall -- again if conditions are right. Exact dates for each year will be shared on the NPS website. In 2024 those dates were from February 10th through the 25th, but more optimal viewing began on the 15th.


Timing wise, you may start to see the cliff face light up around 30 minutes before sunset. Remember to check sunset times for the specific days you'll be visiting! The brightest glow usually occurs 5-15 minutes before the sun is fully set.


Yosemite Reservation System


Due to its popularity, Yosemite has implemented a reservation system for entering the park on busier days during Firefall viewing. This includes all weekends and the Monday holiday of President's Day.


These reservation days are 24 hours, meaning you can't bypass the reservation requirement by entering the park before 5 am or after 4 pm.


Reservations are made for Firefall at recreation.gov.


Tips for Catching Firefall


Firefall is a bit tricky to catch, so follow these tips to increase your chances of the wonderful experience.


  1. Give yourself lots of time to get there. It takes time to get into the park, find parking, and walk out to the viewing areas. Review the parking areas on the NPS map (on this page) before heading out as cell service in the park can be spotty. You'll be walking at least 1.5 miles from your car to the main viewing area at El Capitan Picnic area, so make sure you have enough time to arrive before sunset. This is especially important if you're arriving on the weekend.

  2. Visit during the week if possible. Going during the week will save you tons of time at the park entrance and finding parking. We went on a Tuesday and had no wait at the gate and were able to park super close within the Yosemite Falls parking lot, just past the Yosemite Valley Lodge parking.

  3. Check the weather forecast before you go. Keep in mind that Firefall only occurs on clear, sunny days. If you have a trip planned to view Firefall but the forecast is looking cloudy, see if you can push your dates for a sunnier option.

  4. Check the water levels at Horsetail Fall. If you're not sure how much snow or rain there has been at the park over the winter, give the rangers a quick call to check. Having the perfect weather conditions but no water will make for a disappointing experience!

  5. Familiarize yourself with the best viewing locations. Most folks opt to view Firefall from the El Capitan Picnic area, which is where we ended up as well. There are tons of places to stop along the road and view the falls, but make sure you're within the visible area. Here's a great map that outlines the boundaries of that area. Pro tip: When you're choosing an area, make sure to find one that doesn't have trees blocking the view (though you can get nice framing with some well-placed trees!) and that gives you a side-view of the waterfall for maximum glow.

  6. Double-check the reservation requirements. Reservations change often as the crowds and needs of the park change. Always check the official NPS website for the latest updates.

  7. Pack layers, snacks, and chairs. You'll want to be comfortable as you're waiting to catch this beautiful event. Even if it feels warm as you're carrying your gear from your car to the picnic area, temperatures drop quickly after sunset. Dress in layers (don't forget gloves and a hat!), bring your favorite snack or warm beverage, and plop down on some camp chairs to get cozy. A packable blanket makes the experience so much more cozy. This lightweight camping blanket has been my go-to for years. (*affiliate link)


My Firefall Fail ("Firefail") Story


I finally decided to make the trip to Yosemite after years of admiring Firefall photos on Instagram. I'd visited Yosemite many times in the past, but never in the winter so I wasn't sure what to expect.


Some quick research told me that reservations weren't needed during the week, so that was my plan. I'd take a couple days mid-week to try my luck at catching Firefall (and avoiding the crowds). Within Yosemite Valley, only two campgrounds are open during the winter. Check out the full list here.


Camp 4 doesn't allow dogs, so Upper Pines was my only option as I knew I was going to bring my sidekick, Pico, with me. Checking the availability for the campground during the Firefall dates, there was just one spot left for one night! And it happened to be over Valentine's Day!


I figured it could make a fun, quick Valentine's trip for myself and my boyfriend (and Pico). I snatched up the spot for February 13-14, messaged my boyfriend about it, and we both decided to take a couple days off to make it happen.


My spontaneous booking happened on February 2nd, so we had just under two weeks to plan our trip and get ahead on work for the days we'd be missing.


The morning of the 13th rolled around quickly and we headed out from our apartment in Hollywood bright and early. Around 1 in the afternoon, we were weaving through the snow-covered mountains on our way to the entrance station. Luckily for us, arriving on a Tuesday meant no wait at the gate!


A road seen through the windshield of a car with tree- and snow-covered mountains on either side.

We hustled over to Upper Pines, checked in, and set up camp. All our food was stashed in the bear box and our tent was nice and cozy for our return. We packed up extra layers, snacks and water, and chairs before driving over to find parking for Firefall.


I was worried about parking far from the viewing areas and needing to walk extra miles with our chairs and gear. We were told that if the Yosemite Falls parking was full, we'd need to park at Yosemite Village or Curry Village -- which would add an extra 3 miles round trip to our walk.


Pro tip: There are free shuttles running during Firefall to take you from the parking areas to the viewing area at El Capitan Picnic Area.


Since we brought Pico along with us, the shuttles were not an option and we needed to factor in walking time. Fortunately, arriving during the week again gave us a huge advantage as we were able to snag a spot in one of the closest rows possible in the Yosemite Falls parking lot! This easily saved us tons of time over parking farther in the same lot or in one of the other parking lots.


A road with an orange traffic cone in the middle and a few people walking in the distance.

We set off on foot and joined the stream of people walking southwest in the hopes of catching a beautiful Firefall that evening. One lane of the Northside Drive is closed to cars so pedestrians can safely walk between the viewing areas and their cars. Its normally a gorgeous drive, so I enjoyed taking our time on this stretch of road and soaking in all the views.


A mountain scene with a river, rocks, and trees in the foreground.

There were several clearings on the sides of the road where people were already posted up with chairs and cameras. It was difficult to tell exactly where we were aiming for on the rock cliff as Horsetail Fall wasn't easy to see.


A cliff face lit up by the sun with a small waterfall at the top.

This was our first tip-off that we might not catch another lucky break today and be able to see Firefall. The amount of water in the waterfall seemed a bit lacking.


We struggled somewhat to find a good viewing angle with the waterfall not showing up much regardless of where we stood. We settled on the northeast part of the El Capitan Picnic area, near the parking and picnic tables. This gave us a clear line of sight (no blocking trees) and was enough of a side view of the falls that we'd catch a solid shot of the backlit effect of the sun's rays.


We set up our chairs and settled in to wait...


A dog in a sweater sitting facing a rock cliff.

It was fun seeing everyone positioning their tripods and giving each other tips. You could really feel the anticipation.


Conditions were looking pretty good. If there was enough water in the falls, we were sure to get an incredible show. We waited excitedly, but the sun was suddenly covered by passing clouds just 30 minutes before sunset. 😰


We waited and waited as the temperatures quickly dropped. There was no light whatsoever on the cliff face at which we all stared. It didn't look promising.


Just as we were about to pack it up and walk back to our cars in defeat, the clouds cleared!


I couldn't believe our luck. This trip had just felt right and we'd had such an easy time with everything thus far. A beautiful, gleaming waterfall was about to be the final reward for our journey out here.


Sunlight streamed around the clouds, hitting the rock face across the valley. It began to glow pinker and pinker, illuminating the water in a rosy haze... then it went out.


That's it??


A cliff face illuminated reddish-pink.

It was a beautiful purply-pink for a few minutes, but not the dramatic glowing lava we were hoping for. I guess that just means we'll need to try again next year!


With that, we packed up our chairs and started the walk back to our car in the quickly fading light. It had gotten frigid and we were happy to warm ourselves with the car heater, then with a fire back at camp.


A tent, picnic table, and campfire under a string of lights at night.

We debated sticking around the next day for another chance to catch Firefall, but decided we'd rather head back home early enough that we could unpack and get ready for our next day. We took our time in the morning having breakfast and breaking down camp. Taking a leisurely drive through Yosemite Vally is one of my favorite things and I savored all the sights this morning.


A woman in the sideview mirror of a car looking at passing trees and mountains out the window.

The Yosemite Valley Viewpoint is one of my favorite spots in the park and I always make a quick pitstop on my way out. I loved the way it looked this time of year with the yellowed grasses in the river.


Snow-topped mountains in the background with a river and yellow grass in the foreground.

With my viewpoint stop checked off, we headed out of the park and hit the highway for home. As always happens, we were already dreaming about our next trips -- to Yosemite and elsewhere -- on the drive home. There's no rest for adventure-seekers like us.



 


I hope you enjoyed reading my "Firefail" story and got some helpful tips for catching Firefall yourself one day! If there's any topic you'd like me to cover in a future blog post, let me know in the comments or by reaching out on Instagram or email.


Thank you so much for reading and I'll catch you in the next one.


Happy adventuring,

A

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