It’s a winter migration that seems to get bigger every February: Thousands of photographers and nature-lovers flock to Yosemite National Park to see a natural phenomenon nicknamed “the firefall.”
It’s a bit of a misnomer (read on), but that doesn’t diminish anyone’s desire to witness the spectacular ribbon of light that lasts just a few minutes each evening for a few weeks.
The firefall is usually best seen in mid-February, because that’s when the small Horsetail Fall is flowing with runoff from winter storms. And because the event has drawn such attention in recent years, the park is requiring visitors make advance reservations if they intend to visit during the most coveted Friday through Sunday firefall dates.
However, there’s no park-entrance reservation requirement if you have a camping or lodging reservation inside the park during those dates.
The first batch of park-entry reservations, released Jan. 13, has sold out. The second half of the reservations are due to be released on a rolling basis beginning 8 a.m. Feb. 8 (two days before the date to be reserved) and competition is likely to be stiff.
The reservations are made through Recreation.gov. The Yosemite Conservancy has details and further tips.
If you’re planning a trip to Yosemite to see the show, here’s more of what you need to know about the 2023 firefall.
What is the firefall?
The natural phenomenon occurs when the waning sunlight strikes Horsetail Fall on the famed rock face of El Capitan. The waterfall is backlighted by the setting sun, creating a streak of orange resembling a lava flow. Just before and after sunset, rangers have said, it can glow like fire.
What are the best times to go this year?
The window for seeing the natural firefall runs Feb. 10-27 this year, rangers say. The most remarkable light conditions typically occur during sunset.
I just show up and I’ll see the firefall?
It’s not a slam-dunk. Certain factors can be a real buzz-kill. For starters, water needs to be flowing in the fall. Also, you need a clear night when fog or clouds don’t obscure the light, according to photographer Aaron Meyers, a veteran of many firefalls. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. If you’re minutes late because you couldn’t find a parking spot, you may have missed the show.
Do I need a permit or a reservation to see the firefall?
Yes, if you’re visiting as a day-tripper anytime Friday through Sunday, Feb. 10–12, 17–19, and 24–26. Yosemite’s website has details.
These is no park-entry reservation requirement for visits Monday through Thursday. Park admission for all is $35 per car, good for seven days.
Also, the park will require reservations at Camp 4, Wawona, and Hodgdon Meadow campgrounds from Feb. 1 through Feb. 28. (These campgrounds normally operate on a first-come, first-served basis in February.)
Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village, which usually limits its canvas tents and hard-sided cabins to weekend-only reservations in winter, is opening those units every day from Feb. 10-26. That move gives visitors more rustic lodging options in the valley at a time when demand could be high.
Where are the best viewing sites?
El Capitan Picnic Area on Northside Drive is the most popular spot. The park recommends parking at Yosemite Falls (just west of Yosemite Lodge) and walking 1.5 miles to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area. If the lot at Yosemite Falls is full, park farther away (at Yosemite or Curry villages) and take the free shuttle, which is operating on a limited schedule. Parking and traffic restrictions are in effect from noon to 7 p.m. during firefall season.
Expect a crowd. Rangers said that on Feb. 19 last year, 2,433 firewall-watchers gathered in the prime viewing area. In prior years, visitors have spilled onto riverbanks, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation. As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, often trampling sensitive vegetation and leaving trash.
What should I bring?
Let’s start with a good camera, a cable release and a sturdy tripod. Times photo editor Raul Roa, who has photographed the firefall many times, offered this advice: “iPhones are good for many things, but for this one, I think it’s best to either take a regular camera, something with a zoom lens, or just go and enjoy the sight. Fiddling with an iPhone exposure and zoom while the falls ‘catch fire’ is not what you want to be doing during a bucket-list, rare event like this one.” He carries two camera bodies, one with a wide-angle lens and one with a Sigma 60-600mm lens, plus a GoPro.
Plan to stash your gear in a backpack in case you need to walk a few miles from your parking spot. Go early to scout out a place (folks start lining up as early as noon) and take test photos to make sure your camera is working properly. Bring a flashlight or headlamp so you can see where you are walking. Expect temperatures to be cold. Dress warmly, with layers of clothing, including an outer layer of fleece or a puffy down jacket, a warm hat and gloves. Make sure you have enough water and snacks to be out for a while. You also may need to carry tire chains in case the weather turns and they are required. And think about sticking around. If you miss it one night, try to build in an extra day to try on a second night — if you can get a camping or lodging reservation.
Also, if weather conditions are snowy, you might need chains for your tires.
Why is it called firefall?
The term refers to the man-made firefall, a Yosemite hotel tradition that started in 1872. As the story goes, James McCauley, who owned the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel, built a campfire and kicked the hot embers over the edge — creating a blazing spectacle as the fiery bits descended to the valley 3,200 feet below. People loved the effect. A second hotel owner later continued the tradition to the oohs and aahs of visitors. Yosemite put an end to the blazing ember show in 1968. But that didn’t snuff out the firefall.
The name was revived when a photo of the natural fire-like glow on Horsetail Fall made the rounds in 1973. From the Ansel Adams Gallery website: “For the most part, it flowed with anonymity while casual observers passed it by; that is until a young climber and photographer named Galen Rowell changed the course of history.”
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