Yosemite National Park’s Firefall at Horsetail Fall is a natural phenomenon visible for ~3 weeks each winter. This post offers tips from my experiences, best dates & viewing locations, new reservation info, California snowfall, and more. (Updated February 2, 2021.)
First, you can read about my most recent photography attempt in Firefall Snowy Weekend Photo Report from my visit to Yosemite National Park over Presidents’ Day Weekend. This covers my thoughts on the new procedures, crowds, what to expect (and pack), and my anecdotal experience of trudging through waist-deep snow to get my Firefall photo.
Second, the National Park Service has announced that restrictions will be in effect for February 2021. The first of these is that the closest available parking will be Yosemite Falls Parking Area (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge), with a 1.5 mile walk from there to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area, which is a popular Firefall viewpoint. This is similar to what the NPS has done the last two years, but there are more new restrictions for 2021…
The bigger change is that day use reservations will be required to enter Yosemite National Park from February 8 through at least February 28, 2021. These reservations are now available with 80% being released at the beginning of the month, and the final 20% to be released daily 2 days in advance of arrival. (For example, on February 20 at 8 a.m. PST, the remaining reservations will be released for February 22, 2021.)
Day-use reservations are valid for seven consecutive days and must be validated on the first day that your reservation is scheduled to begin. Only one reservation is needed per vehicle, regardless of whether the vehicle contains one person or one-dozen. Click here to make Yosemite National Park reservations via Recreation.gov.
Visitors with an overnight reservation in Yosemite National Park (campground, lodging, vacation rental, or wilderness permit holders) will not need a day use reservation. Additionally, those arriving via public transit or on an authorized tour do not need reservations. Those with annual or lifetime passes will need reservations (and will have to pay $2 for the reservation), but will not need to pay an entrance fee.
Although this new reservation system coincides with the annual Firefall at Yosemite National Park, the impetus for the attendance limitation is local public health conditions. The National Park Service is working with health authorities and the four adjacent counties (Mariposa, Tuolumne, Madera, and Mono) to ensure the park reopens safely. Capacity caps are part of that, and will likely remain in place beyond Firefall dates.
The park-wide reservations won’t alone limit attendance or crowds in popular Firefall viewing locations. For that, parking restrictions are once again in effect for February 13-25, 2021 from noon to 7 pm. Yosemite Falls Parking Area is the only place to park, and pedestrians (as well as stopping/parking vehicles) will be prohibited between El Capitan Crossover to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area on Southside Drive. From Cathedral Beach Picnic Area to Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, the area between the road and the Merced River will also be closed to all entry.
This effectively eliminates half of all primary Firefall viewing locations in Yosemite National Park. Per the NPS, this new restriction is being implemented because last year on the Friday after Presidents’ Day, over 2,000 visitors overcrowded this riverbank. As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, trampling sensitive vegetation and exposing themselves to unsafe conditions. In the aftermath of Firefall, undeveloped areas were littered with trash, and the lack of restrooms resulted in unsanitary conditions.
Why the National Park Service is doing this is completely understandable. However, the practical reality is that the main viewing area will now have double the demand and be even more overcrowded–and it was already pretty overcrowded last year. This will result in even more heightened tensions (we’ve seen fights almost break out over tripod space), people arriving even earlier to stake out spots, some photogs being shut out entirely, and others spilling out into other places they don’t belong.
William McIntosh, one of the best Yosemite photographers, has published Why I Won’t Be Photographing The Firefall detailing why he’s opting out this year. I totally agree with all of that. Of course, you might retort that this is easy for both of us to say, as we’ve already captured the Firefall countless times.
I’d counter that if this is your first visit to Yosemite National Park, it’s a miserable way to experience the park’s beauty and splendor. You will be waiting around all day in crowds exponentially more colossal than what you’d find a few weeks before or after the height of Firefall season all in the hope that maybe conditions will be just right for a few minutes of the natural phenomenon.
The sacrifice is huge for such a small sliver of time, and the potentiality of a perfect shot…that will be identical to thousands of others on Instagram. Of course, the decision is yours to make, but I’d strongly encourage you to visit before or after all the Firefall hoopla. Yosemite National Park is one of my absolute favorite places on earth, and you will not experience why that is by taking a trip focused around Firefall. With that said, if you opt to do it anyway, here’s my info, tips, and recommendations…
Before I get to my tips for photographing Yosemite National Park’s Firefall, how about some background? The Firefall was made famous by Galen Rowell, who in his memoir Mountain Light detailed his scramble to photograph the Firefall when he spotted it in February 1973. Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall is the first known photo of the Firefall, and endures to this day as one of the most iconic photos in landscape photography.
Ironically enough, 1973 did not mark the first photo of a firefall in Yosemite National Park, just the first photo of the natural phenomenon. From 1872 until 1968, burning garbage was dumped from the top of Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley’s floor 3,000 feet below, which looked like a waterfall of fire (in reality, a flaming garbage-fall, but who’s keeping score?). This fire-fall occurred nightly at 9 p.m. in the summer, and was held by Glacier Point Hotel. In fitting irony, Glacier Point Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1969, and has not been rebuilt.
The National Park Service eventually ordered it to end because it was causing damage to Yosemite Valley, both in terms of meadows being trampled and the whole flaming garbage thing. All of this might seem absurd and a case of “what were they thinking?!” to us today, but keep in mind that this was also an era during which people fed bears out of car windows and park rangers encouraged guests to watch bears eat at garbage pits. It was a different time.
The Firefall has since gained popularity among photographers wishing to capture their own photos of this iconic scene, with its popularity proliferating in recent years in the era of social media and virality. Now, it seems like the Yosemite Firefall has gone mainstream, and is not just on the radar of photographers. It’s a big draw for anyone wanting to experience the stunning natural phenomenon.
When I wrote about this on TravelCaffeine a few years ago, I wasn’t exactly enamored with what I had witnessed. That was after my first visit to Yosemite National Park, and I wrote that “it was a fun ‘Bucket List’ item to cross off, but it wasn’t even close to the highlight of the trip…it paled in comparison to the rest of the trip.” Given that “the rest” of Yosemite National Park is absolutely breathtaking and amazing any time of the year, these may not be harsh words, but suffice to say, I was not overwhelmed.
In fact, when talking with Bill McIntosh about possibly going to see the Firefall the following year (there was awful water flow anyway), I wasn’t interested at all. At the time, he and I were heading up to Yosemite pretty often, so making the trek up from Southern California would’ve been no big deal, but I told him photographing it again wasn’t high on my list. In terms of Yosemite photography, I had other priorities.
However, some photography friends were coming out to California for the Horsetail Fall Firefall last February, so I figured I might as well join. It’d be a fun weekend, and we’d do plenty of other shooting, as well. It was when we saw the Firefall in its full glory that I realized what a difference good water flow and the right conditions make. The scene was breathtaking.
Here are some of my tips if you want to photograph it yourself…
Firefall Photography Tips
There are no specific dates when the Firefall is guaranteed to be visible. The window for which you should aim if you want to see it is mid to late-February. The best potential dates are going to fall within a roughly two week window around this time, but the Firefall could potentially be seen before or after this window, too.
I’ve seen some sites and photographers list a single, “peak” date, but this is total speculative B.S. to make them sound like experts. The reason being, the Firefall is largely contingent upon weather conditions. Sure, there’s a theoretical “peak” date, as there is with any natural phenomenon like this, but the difference between the peak date and a date +/-7 days from that peak is negligible, assuming all other variables are the same.
From my perspective, there is no single best date for the 2021 Firefall, but there are worst dates: February 12-15, 2021. That’s Valentine’s Day through Presidents’ Day Weekend, which is always the busiest time to go. Additionally, I’d avoid February 19-21, 2021. That’s another weekend, and it also coincides with what’s believed to be “peak light.” Instead, aim for weekdays–ideally after February 21, 2021 for the lowest crowds.
Beyond the best dates, the bigger concerns are weather and water flow. The latter is the biggest thing, and what really distinguished last year from the Firefall a couple of years ago, in my mind. Yosemite National Park received a decent amount of snow last year, and that coupled with abnormally warm weather during our Firefall attempts meant some seriously good water flow.
Note that even when there’s not much snow, water is not a strict necessity for the Firefall. Although the effect is much cooler with strong flow, the lighting occurs regardless, so all is not lost if you’ve going during a ‘dry’ year. In that scenario, composing a wider scene to “fake it” a bit might be necessary, or at least the safer bet.
Weather matters, too. Unlike a normal sunset, which is best photographed with some nice clouds that are illuminated by the sun, a clear sky is ideal for the Firefall. You need the sun hitting the mountain for the full effect of the Firefall, and all it takes is a single rogue cloud to kill it.
Likewise, we learned that a bit of wind can really help with the effect, as that can really exaggerate the waterfall’s visible intensity, and the spray from the waterfall catching the fleeting sunset light is a breathtaking sight. My favorite shot I captured of the Firefall is the one at the top of this section from a side view of Horsetail Fall shot from a clearing in the woods about a mile before the El Capitan Picnic Area.
The way the mist is catching the light has an ethereal quality, and seeing this in person actually gave me goosebumps. I fired off over 100 photos and each shot with the mist like this has its own unique character. I started editing about 15 of them before I decided I need to narrow things down.
Don’t be worried if you can’t see the waterfall an hour or two before sunset. Unless the water flow is looking really good, chances are you won’t be able to see it. Don’t feel dumb about asking another photographer to point it out to you when you get to the viewing locations. It’s a pretty common question, and info you’ll want to have if you arrive early.
Speaking of views, there are two go-to spots, both of which are pull-outs on the Yosemite Valley Loop. The most popular spot is the south view, which is a parking area near Cathedral Beach. (As noted above, this will not be an option on peak dates in 2021 due to new NPS restrictions.) The second is the north view, east of the El Capitan Picnic Area. These are good, safe locations for viewing the Firefall.
If you’re worried about being able to find these spots, don’t be. Hundreds of photographers descend upon Yosemite National Park for the Firefall, and there will be cones set up along with signage about Firefall parking. Because of this, it’s recommended that you arrive to one of these spots at least an hour early, as you will be jockeying for position with a lot of other people.
I highly recommend sticking to one of these spots for your initial attempt at the Firefall, unless you’re with someone who has shot it before or you do a lot of homework to figure out an alternate vantage. Once you shoot from the go-to spots on night 1, I recommend finding an alternate spot on night 2.
This is my recommendation for a few reasons. First, finding the Firefall on your own is tricky, and there are few other locations in Yosemite Valley that offer as good of a view as these parking areas. Second, there is something to be said for the communal experience of witnessing such an amazing moment (or moments) with other visitors to the park. I’m not exactly keen on photographing sunrise at Tunnel View elbow-to-elbow with 50 other photographers, but it’s totally different; there’s a palpable energy to the collective experience, and one enjoyed by photographer and non-photographer alike.
Finally, the flip side of the communal energy is the individual solitude. It’s nice to have one night of a communal experience followed by one where you’ll alone with nature, soaking in the tranquility and remarkable beauty of the scene. If you have more than 2 nights (and I’d budget a third as 2 really is “dangerous” in terms of the stars aligning for the right confluence of circumstances), experiment with other locations as you see fight.
For one trip photographing the Firefall, I shot from two new locations away from the go-to spots. The photo at the top of the post is taken from a scramble up to get a view above the Yosemite Valley floor, and the others are from the woods before the El Cap picnic area.
In terms of light, you can expect things to start looking good about 15 minutes before official sunset. The light won’t quite be a sliver, but depending upon your angle, this can yield quality shots. I’d recommend grabbing a few shots even earlier than that, as a cloud could come out of nowhere to kill the scene, so you want to hedge your bets. In my experience, the light peaks almost at the official sunset time on the dot.
On the day that the above photo was shot, the official sunset time was 5:34 p.m., and the EXIF data shows that I shot it at 5:34:59 p.m. It literally was the last light–my actual last shot was taken at 5:36:34 p.m., and by that time, portions of the waterfall no longer have light hitting them. Many photographers wait until the last light to grab their shots as the sliver of light is the narrowest and the falls glow red, but I actually prefer my shots from around 5:20 to 5:30 p.m. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
As far as equipment goes, you want a zoom lens, ideally a 70-200mm or perhaps even something with more reach. I’d also recommend having a second camera with a wider lens to capture the Firefall anchoring a more traditional landscape scene. In fact, I’ve used my Sony a7R II with the Sony 24-240mm, so I could zoom out and capture wide vista scenes, as well as get in tight for 200mm+ views that show the detail of Horsetail Fall.
I know “serious” photographers probably scoff at the notion of using a super-zoom as opposed to something like a 70-200 f/2.8, but with the fleeting nature of the light, you don’t have much time to change lenses if you decide you want a wider view. You’ll also definitely want a tripod. Some of my photos are around 1/4 second, which isn’t handheld territory for most people.
Overall, the Firefall at Yosemite National Park is a beautiful natural phenomenon that is quite the sight to behold. However, you will be sacrificing a lot to behold it. What you don’t see ‘behind the scenes’ of those stunning photos is an experience totally antithetical with the ideal Yosemite National Park visit.
Between new for 2021 restrictions and the ever-increasing prominence of the event on social media, trying to see/shoot the Firefall is an overcrowded, tense, and downright unpleasant. I have zero desire to ever return to Yosemite National Park for Firefall, and would strongly encourage you to think twice before visiting during this timeframe. Yosemite is truly majestic in the winter…but Firefall is no longer worth the effort, frustration, intensity, crowds, etc.
If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re looking for more Yosemite photo spots, check out my Yosemite National Park Photo Spots & Tips post. Also, another great resource is Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park.
Have you seen the Firefall at Yosemite National Park? What did you think of it? Is it on your bucket list? What do you think of my shots of the Firefall? Do you agree or disagree with my recommendation of avoiding Firefall? Do you think it’s worth the crowds, frustrations, and headache–or do you agree that it’s become too popular and mainstream? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!