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What to Know If You Want a Glorious Photo of Yosemite’s Firefall

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The Firefall event on Yosemite's Horsetail Falls occurs during the second half of February — provided a multitude of factors is just right. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)
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The last two weeks of February are the best time to see Yosemite’s Firefall.

The El Capitan picnic area is best place for viewing, but it fills up quickly.

The National Park Service requires a reservation to drive into Yosemite on February weekends and the Feb. 19 holiday.


What has perhaps become Yosemite’s most famous phenomenon returns this month, but given the upcoming rain, those hoping to see the natural glory of El Capitan’s rare illumination will have to time their visit just right.

The end of February means Firefall season for Yosemite Valley — when the stars align just right to turn a chance waterfall into a momentary light show.

Be sure to stake out a good spot early if you want a good shot of Horsetail Falls on El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)

What to Know for Your Firefall Trip

It takes a lot of factors to create the Firefall. The temporary Horsetail Falls coming off of the eastern side of El Capitan that causes the illumination is not fed by a river, but rather snowmelt. It needs to be cold enough to form a good enough snowpack to feed the waterfall, but not so cold the snow doesn’t melt so water can trickle down.

The precise angle needed for the sun to hit the falls comes only in February’s last two weeks. The occurrence happens just as the sun is setting. Any cloud cover in that direction will obscure the sun. Use the weather forecast to time your trip.

Sunset happens at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23. Though it may seem a traveler has plenty of time to get to Yosemite and tour the Valley, the El Capitan picnic area — the best place to view the event — fills up quickly, even on a weekday. If you’re brave enough to try for a weekend, the National Park Service requires a reservation.

Be sure to get there a couple of hours early to stake your claim and set up your tripod. Yosemite Valley Lodge has the nearest parking, so be prepared for a little bit of a walk. Bring snacks and something warm to drink.

The collective gasp at the sight of the Firefall will let you know it’s underway — if you happen to be talking to someone about what camera setting they’re using when it begins. You’ll have a solid five to 15 minutes to snap as many photos as possible, adjust your settings, or soak in the majestic sight.

Everyone tends to leave together, so the walk back resembles a migration more than a stroll.

 

People come from all over the world to view Yosemite’s majestic Firefall. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)

Nature Provides a Safer ‘Firefall’ Than the One Humans Created

We don’t know if California’s native tribes knew about the rarely timed event, but it wasn’t until 1973 that photographer Galen Rowell happened to see the Firefall on Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain.

What seems almost by providence, the discovery came five years after the National Park Service had ended the manmade “Firefall.” In 1872, owners of the Mountain House Hotel pushed a live bonfire off of Glacier Point, on the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from El Cap. That became a yearly tradition until safety issues — including the ever-looming threat of wildfire — spurred the National Park Service to put a stop to it.

The event draws people from around the globe, so while you’re waiting, hoping you might chance a view at the majestic event, neighbors often make for good conversation.

The conditions need to be just right for the ice and snowmelt from El Capitan to form Horsetail Falls and the Firefall event. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)

Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.