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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 19 to 24, as long as snow doesn’t get in the way.

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Prime viewing of the firefall will occur from February 19 to 24, as long as snow doesn’t get in the way.

Due to the increased popularity of this rare event, the park has implemented new restrictions on car and foot traffic, so you’ll have to plan ahead to see it in person.

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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 next Wednesday, February 12, SFGate.com reports.

To see the firefall at the 2,030-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, there’s been more snowfall than usual, so unless an arctic cold front causes a freeze, the water should flow fine.

The firefall could be seen as early as February 12 and run until Feburary 28. Prime viewing could last from Feburary 19 through February 24 with the best time being between 5:28 and 5:40 p.m. on February 22.

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

How to see the firefall in 2020

While visitors don’t need permits or passes to view Horsetail Falls during the firefall, the natural phenomenon is becoming increasingly popular, and over the past few years, Yosemite has had to implement new restrictions to control the crowds. Last year, the park prohibited stopping or parking along Southside Drive, one of the main access roads to the area. Visitors were required to park in the Yosemite Falls lot and hike through the snow to viewpoints. 

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However, according to the park website, the area was still overwhelmed. On February 22, 2019, over 2,000 people gathered to view the firefall: “Visitors spilled onto riverbanks, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation.”

This year, in addition to prohibiting stopping and parking along Southside Drive again, the park won’t allow pedestrian access to the road, effectively closing two of the most popular firefall viewing points. 

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.

These restrictions will be in effect daily from February 14 through February 27, 2020, from noon to 7 p.m.

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A post shared by Alice | SF + Travel (@alicethieu) on Jan 29, 2019 at 7:00pm PST

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.)

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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 4, 2020, to include current information.

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