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

The National Park Service estimates viewers will be able to spot Horsetail Fall’s famed “firefall” between February 10–27 this year.

Yosemite’s “Firefall”

Prime viewing of the firefall will occur from February 10 to 27.

Photo by Shutterstock

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,” is estimated to happen between February 10–27, 2023, according to the National Park Service.

For the firefall at the 1,575-foot Horsetail Fall—located on the eastern side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley—to be visible, 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. Fortunately, 2023 has brought record-breaking levels of snow and rainfall throughout California. The Central Sierra Nevada mountain range in which Yosemite is located has received 226 percent of its average annual snowfall this year, according to state data. While it’s still too soon to tell if temperatures will warm up enough to melt the snowpack and allow the falls to flow, it’s a promising stat for anyone trying to catch the phenomenon this year.

Best time to see the Yosemite firefall in 2023

This year, the event may be seen as early as February 10 and run until February 27. Prime viewing could last from February 19 through February 24. The best time to see Yosemite’s firefall will likely be between 5:28 and 5:40 p.m. on February 22, according to forecasts from photographer Aaron Meyers, who has shot the event many times and releases annual recommendations for photographers hoping to catch the falls at their most brilliant. Generally, the phenomenon appears just before sunset on clear days, right as the sun hits the waterfall at a particular angle.

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

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

Photo by Shutterstock

How to plan a trip to Yosemite to see the firefall

Due to the increasing popularity of the event, reservations will be required for anyone driving into Yosemite on the weekends of February 10–12, 17–19, and 24–26, 2023. For those able to visit during the week, which includes the date Meyers recommends visiting on, reservations will not be required.

Yosemite is also implementing additional restrictions to control the crowds (which can pose a risk to the environment around the falls) closer to the peak dates of the firefall. Between February 10 and 27, 2023, Southside Drive in Yosemite Valley 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. 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. Visitors can also park and take a free shuttle the 5 to 6 miles from Yosemite Village or Curry Village to the viewing point.

Winter is a great time to visit Yosemite. If you plan to visit the falls in person, park officials recommend bringing warm clothes, boots, and a flashlight or headlamp, as the sun will have set by the time you leave the viewing point and average temperatures in February range between 28 and 53 degrees.

The original Yosemite 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.)

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 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 most recently updated on January 24, 2023, to include current information.

Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.