With heavy winter storms in the area and a short viewing window, you’ll have to plan ahead to capture this rare event in person.
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 next Tuesday if the weather cooperates, SFGate.com reports.
However, to see the firefall at 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. With all the winter storms hitting the area, the water is currently frozen.
While the firefall could be seen as early as February 19, forecasted snow could keep the water too cold to flow and also block the sun’s rays. If the weather clears and temperatures warm up, park officials told SFGate.com that they believe prime viewing could last from next week through February 24.
Last year, Yosemite required visitors to make online reservations for one of the 250 parking permits each day after thousands of cars piled up along Southside Drive to see the optical illusion. This year, the park is trying to further control the crowds.
Because of the amount of snow the park has received—and is still receiving—stopping or parking along the road in Yosemite Valley won’t be permitted this month. While ADA parking access will be allowed in the El Capitan picnic area, which has direct views of the firefall, everyone else will need to hike in through the snow.
There won’t be an online reservation system this year, and the park says it will only allow visitors to park in the Yosemite Falls Parking Area near the Yosemite Valley Lodge. From there, you’ll have to walk “at least a mile” to the viewpoint at the El Capitan picnic area. Park officials recommend bringing warm clothes, boots, and a flashlight.
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The original firefall
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.