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Yosemite’s “Firefall” Is Back—Here’s How to See the Natural Phenomenon

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Prime viewing of the firefall will occur from February 18 to 23.

Photo by Shutterstock

Prime viewing of the firefall will occur from February 18 to 23.

The park has implemented restrictions on car and foot traffic and reservations are going fast.

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Every year from mid- to late February, the setting sun hits Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall at just the right angle, creating the illusion that the waterfall is on fire. The phenomenon, which is known as the “firefall,” could return as early as Monday, February 15, LAtimes.com reports.

To see the firefall at the 1,575-foot Horsetail Fall—located on the east side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley—conditions have to be nearly perfect. In addition to clear skies so that the sun can hit the waterfall, there also has to be enough snow melted so that the waterfall is flowing.

This year, the firefall could be seen as early as February 15 and run until February 26. Prime viewing could last from February 18 through February 23 with the best time being between 5:28 and 5:40 p.m. on February 21, according to forecasts from photographer Aaron Meyers, who has shot the event many times.

The firefall may look like a stream of molten lava, but it’s really an optical illusion.

How to see the firefall in 2021

Yosemite reopened on Monday, February 1, after January storms toppled at least 15 giant sequoias in the Wawona area of the park. In order to limit crowds during the pandemic (and while roads continue to be cleared), the park is implementing a day-use reservation system for visits between February 8 and 28, 2021. The reservations are $33 per vehicle (unless you have a parks pass), plus a $2 handling fee that must be paid if you are a pass holder. Advanced reservations are required for anyone who enters the park, except for those with reservations at a lodge or campground.

The park started accepting reservations on February 1 at 8 a.m. PT at recreation.gov. The reservations are going quickly, but the good news is that only 80 percent of the reservations were released on February 1. The park will release the remaining 20 percent at 8 a.m. two days prior to the reservation date. So, on February 6 at 8 a.m., reservations for February 8 will be available.

Due to the increasing popularity of the event, Yosemite is implementing additional restrictions to control the crowds closer to the peak dates of the firefall. From noon to 7 p.m. daily between February 13–25, 2021, Southside Drive will be closed to pedestrians, and stopping and parking will also be prohibited. 

During that same timeframe, visitors will only be able to gather for views of the falls in the El Capitan picnic area on Northside Drive. While ADA parking access will be allowed here, no one else will be allowed to stop or unload passengers along this road. One lane will be closed to vehicles, allowing pedestrians to safely walk the 1.5 miles from the Yosemite Falls parking lot (near the Yosemite Valley Lodge) to the viewpoint. Park officials recommend bringing warm clothes, boots, and a flashlight.

The original firefall

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This firefall illusion has become more and more popular in recent years, but there used to be another version made of actual fire. Up until 1968, the remains of campfires would be pushed over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite on a nightly basis, creating a stream of embers that eventually became known as the Firefall. (See video footage of the event from the 1960s here.)

The practice started in 1871 back when the owner of the Glacier Point Hotel would kick embers from the lodge’s campfire over the edge each night. The event became so popular to watch that it continued into the 20th century. After the National Park Service was created in 1916 and Yosemite fell under its protection, the NPS tried to stop the Firefall several times, but it wasn’t fully outlawed for fire safety concerns until nearly 50 years later.

It was after the Firefall was banned that the natural version was even noticed. In fact, it took until the early 1970s when the wilderness photographer Galen Rowell captured the firefall-like illusion off the eastern edge of El Capitan and shared his photos. Now that social media exists, the phenomenon only continues to attract more visitors as the years go on.

This article originally appeared online in February 2019; it was updated on February 1, 2021, to include current information.

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