Firefall is one of the most spectacular displays of natural beauty that Yosemite National Park has to offer. When conditions are just right, Horsetail Fall, located on the eastern side of El Capitan, lights up and resembles molten lava pouring over the side the valley. Words and photos don’t do it justice, you need to see it for yourself!
We’ve put together a few tips to help get you in place and ready to capture the big event.
Firefall only occurs when the sun angle is just right at sunset in mid-February. Usually around February 17-19 is the peak, but there’s potential for the phenomenon to occur for several days around those “peak” days.
Horsetail Fall is a small waterfall that only exists in the cooler months when there is adequate snow/rain runoff to create flow. The lava effect comes from the sunset lighting up the falling water. We tried to see Firefall back in 2018, but there wasn’t even a waterfall due to the California drought, so definitely check conditions before you go. The National Park website has several webcams to check live conditions. Water flow is critical, but you also need relatively clear skies at the time of sunset for the light to hit the fall. If it’s a blizzard or clouds roll in at JUST the wrong time, all bets are off. This happened to us in 2019 on our first night attempting to see Firefall (see video below). We stood eagerly waiting, and just as the fall lit up from the setting sun, the clouds covered the sunset and you could hear the disappointment spread over the crowd. If you can manage it, we recommend staying in or near the park and coming for multiple nights to improve your chances of seeing it.
The main view points to see Firefall are the El Capitan Picnic Area and the parking area near Cathedral Beach. However, we would advise against these spots because they are SO CROWDED! People stake out spots hours in advance in these two spots. That wasn’t an option for us as we had our 6-month old daughter with us, and wanted to spend our time enjoying other parts of the park during the day. There are many other viewing points along Northside Drive. The park closes one lane of Northside Drive for this event, so you can walk along the drive and find a spot to see the fall easily without needing to devote hours staking out a spot. We watched from an area on the south side of the road after crossing over Eagle Creek. The area is on the last large turn in the road before it straightens out and reaches the El Capitan Picnic area. We parked at the Yosemite Falls Parking area earlier in the day to make sure we had a good parking spot and walked from there. The lots filled early, so come early, hike around, visit the lodge to warm up, and then walk to your spot.
As a heads up, don’t plan on timing your drive to pass the view points at the perfect moment with the hope to stop and just watch. The park service runs a tight ship and doesn’t allow any parking or stopping between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover on Northside Drive. They were enforcing and ticketing last year.
First, getting there safely is key. The road conditions in Yosemite can be dicey in the winter. Keep in mind, you may need tire chains. Last year when we went, chains or 4-wheel drive with snow tires was required. You can check the National Park website for current conditions to see if chain requirements are in effect. If you have a Sprinter, we have a blog about snow chains here.
Second, we would recommend warm clothes, head lamps, and snow boots or waterproof shoes. Although the park service blocks one lane of traffic so you can walk along the road to your viewing spot, you will need to step off the road to watch the event. The ground can be either covered in snow (we had about 5 feet to trudge through last year) or mud.
Finally, if you are traveling with kids, keep in mind they get cold much faster than we do! We carried our daughter in a pack and stuck a battery bank in the bottom that ran a nice heating blanket for her the whole time. Totally not necessary with the proper bunting, but she loved it! You could also consider little hot hand hand warmer packets if it’s really chilly.
Firefall is epic and it draws quite a crowd. Each year we’ve gone to try to see it, the crowd has grown exponentially. While crowds aren’t our thing and might not be yours either, don’t let it scare you away just yet. If you plan ahead, arrive early, get a good parking spot, and know you’ll be watching the magic with thousands of other outdoor enthusiasts, you’ll enjoy it so much more! If you are lucky enough to see it, the awe and wonderment you can hear in the voices around you is really special and adds to the magic. Good luck!