2023 Yosemite Firefall Viewing Guide: Best Dates, Reservations Info & Tips
Yosemite National Park’s Firefall at Horsetail Fall is a natural phenomenon visible in winter. This viewing guide offers info & tips from my experiences, best dates & locations, 2023 reservation requirements, parking restrictions, California snowfall & more. (Updated January 14, 2023.)
First, you can read about my last photography attempt in Firefall Snowy Weekend Photo Report from my visit to Yosemite National Park. That was over Presidents’ Day Weekend–I haven’t been back in the couple of years since for reasons covered below. This also explains 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 photos.
Second, the National Park Service has announced the policies that will be in effect for February 2023 at Yosemite National Park. Due to the popularity of the Firefall at Horsetail Falls, restrictions are in effect for February 10-26, 2023. Here’s what you need to know…
Reservations will be required to enter Yosemite National Park 24 hours per day on the following weekends:
- February 10–12, 2023
- February 17–19, 2023
- February 24–26, 2023
This applies to all visitors to Yosemite, even those not intending to see Horsetail Fall. Guests who arrive Mondays through Thursdays won’t need a reservation. The $35/car entrance fee is valid for entry for seven days, regardless of day of arrival.
Beginning at 8 am Pacific time two days prior to a day-use reservation date, the remaining 50% of reservations will be available on Recreation.gov. For example, on February 8 at 8 am, day-use reservations for February 10 will be available. The non-refundable reservation fee is $2. You will pay the entrance fee (or show an annual or lifetime pass) when you arrive. Cancelled reservations become available immediately.
Based on past precedent, reservations for these weekends will fill up almost immediately. If you’re unable to score them, one workaround is arriving to Yosemite National Park on a weekday and staying overnight. Once you’re in, you’re in. The reservation requirement is based on arrival date, and nothing else.
In addition to the reservation requirement for the aforementioned weekends in February 2023. To view Horsetail Fall, park at Yosemite Falls parking (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge) and walk 1.5 miles (each way) to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area, which is a popular Firefall viewpoint. Bring warm clothes and a headlamp or flashlight. Toilets, trash, and recycling dumpsters are all available at the picnic area.
If this parking is full, park at Yosemite Village or Curry Village and use the free shuttle to get to Yosemite Falls parking and Yosemite Valley Lodge. In addition to the regular shuttle, an express shuttle will be operating between Yosemite Village and the Yosemite Falls parking/Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Vault toilets, along with trash and recycling dumpsters, are available at the El Capitan Picnic Area. Northside Drive will have one lane closed to vehicles so pedestrians can walk on the road between the viewing area and Yosemite Falls parking. Parking, stopping, or unloading passengers will be prohibited between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover. On busy weekends, Northside Drive may close completely for about a half hour immediately after sunset.
Southside Drive will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited between El Capitan Crossover to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Pedestrians will also be prohibited from traveling on or adjacent to the road in this area. From Cathedral Beach Picnic Area to Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, the area between the road and the Merced River (including the river) will also be closed to all entry.
El Capitan Crossover (the road connecting Northside and Southside Drives near El Capitan) will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited.
Per the NPS, this restriction is implemented because of overcrowding. This is typically at its worst the weekend of Presidents’ Day, when over 2,000 visitors pack into a small section of 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.
The good news is that Yosemite National Park won’t be lacking in snowfall in February 2023 necessary for ideal Firefall conditions. To the contrary, you’ve probably heard about the “endless stream”of atmospheric river events across Northern California Wednesday that have resulted in heavy precipitation.
Although this has been the case across California, the Sierra Nevada has been hit especially hard. Total snowfall at present is over 6 feet for elevations above 7,000 feet, per the National Weather Service. By the time you read this, that number could be significantly higher, as the atmospheric rivers aren’t done yet.
It should go without saying, but this is above average by orders of magnitude. Nearly all of California has received precipitation totals 400% to 600% above average in the past several weeks, the National Weather Service noted in a forecast discussion this week. Yosemite National Park is on the higher end of that spectrum.
California winters have been feast or famine in recent years, and this puts Winter 2023 squarely into feast territory. With plenty of snowy deposits to the water bank that is the Sierra Nevada, there should be ample water flow into the Horsetail Falls Firefall come February 2023. If anything the bigger question is whether it’ll warm up enough for this to start melting off–it’s always possible that the weather will remain cold and not cooperate in that regard.
Fair warning: 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 Viewing 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 2023 Firefall, but there are worst dates: February 18-21, 2023. That’s the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend, which is always the busiest time to go. Additionally, I’d avoid February 11-13, 2023. That’s another weekend, and it also coincides with what’s believed to be “peak light.” Instead, aim for weekdays–ideally towards the beginning or end of February 2023 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 2023 due to National Park Service 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 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!
Does anyone know if the firefall will still be visible on Saturday 2/27? Or will this be too late?
Hi Tom (and group),
I have reservations for 2/23/2021 and was wondering if anyone has been to Yosemite in the last couple of days? Zoo or worth the pictures?
I was in Yosemite on 2/20. There was minimal water flow, overhanging clouds, and a pretty crowded El Capitan picnic area. The atmosphere was enjoyable, with at least some of the people interacting while hoping for a break in the clouds. Lo and behold, as the time approached, the clouds to the west started to break up. While the limited flow also limited the illusion, it was still nice to experience. The flow was more of an orange, but the camera seemed to catch deeper, more saturated color.
I actually might return on 2/23 to try my luck, as temperatures should be above freezing even in the higher elevations and conditions are expected to be sunny.
I agree that, if you’ve experienced the phenomenon at its near best, you probably should keep that memory (and the photos/videos) and choose other times/seasons and locations in the park. I’ve experienced about 90% of the “accessible” touristy locations in all seasons, plus a whopping 8-10% of the back country (which covers a lot of area). There really is so much more to the park than the overburdened Yosemite Valley.
I just posted a photo on Twitter (I think), as it was the first one I’ve ever started a post. I hope it worked. If you want to see how it looked, search @lamentor79
…was the first time I ever started a post….
Great article, Tom! I agree that the Yosemite National Park’s “Firefall” in winters is phenomenal and it gets way too crowded. I think one needs a calm mind and space for clicking the best pictures. So, it’s better to visit in May and September when it’s less crowded yet still as beautiful.
In a related phenomenon, last week one morning we were able to see upper Yosemite fall transformed into a rainbow. If there were way to send you the photo, I would. Was quite special. Thanks for this article, I always enjoy your writing and tips.
This is something on my bucket list. I actually want to do a shot of the Firefall above the floor. I was wondering if you could see it on the trail up to Yosemite Falls? Where did you do your scramble? If you don’t mind me asking.
I do accept as true with all of the ideas you have introduced for your post.
They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless,
the posts are too short for starters. Could you
please lengthen them a little from next time? Thank you
for the post.
I have been for the past couple of years. It is a beautiful area. Where did you take the picture at the beginning of your blog. I love the perspective and I have never seen it like that before
Thanks for the 2018 update. We’re headed there in a few weeks with the hopes we can capture something. We signed up for the Glacier Point shuttle which is being offered. I’m wondering if Glacier Point is another “go-to” spot for the fire falls? The roads are closed but the shuttle takes 45 people up just before sunset. Any thoughts/comments would be appreciated. (FYI we booked it through travelyosemite.com)
I’ve never heard of anyone going to Glacier Point for Firefall, but I know Bill McIntosh has talked about wanting to do it before. The problem, in the past at least, was access. It doesn’t seem like that’ll be an issue this year due to snowfall, though. I think it could work, but I’ve never tried myself.
Sorry this wasn’t more helpful!
Thanks Tom for the response. It seems I got the wrong info. NPS.gov is making arrangements for the viewing of the falls (restricted area for parking, walking and shuttle). The shuttle goes to a restricted viewing area, not Glacier Point. It seems the logistics were still fluid at the time i called.
I just commented on your other post about Keyhole Arch. I found that post while researching Keyhole Arch and found it a great resource. This post is fantastic as well. I was at Yosemite for the first time in June 2017 and I instantly fell in love. We live in Pa so it’s not readily accessible for us sadly but I do plan on going back someday and I am saving this post and your others to help me plan my next trip. I feel like I could spend a month out there and still not see get every shot that I want to get. That place is just AMAZING!!
Thanks for the info and inspiration! I am headed there in a few weeks and hope the conditions are good since we haven’t had much rain this winter.
I’d like to say that your article was well written and you are clearly a photographer of exceptional talent.
Just one comment, on a bit of your history regarding the actual firefall u spoke of from days long gone… I won’t ever argue the fact that some stupid things occurred within the park over the last many decades. I will take minor exception to the image you portrayed of a flaming heap of garbage falling from Glacier Point however. As I was a little young at the time that I personally witnessed many dozen firefalls in Yosemite, some from above, more from below, I won’t hazard to say that NO garbage or trash was ever included with the nightly fall. I will emphatically state however, that the large pile of burning debris was in fact, primarily at least, wood and other products of trees and plant growth gathered by workers daily. It was lit in the late afternoon and allowed to turn to embers just in time for the whole pile to be pushed over the side after the calls of a Park Ranger from Camp Curry below to, “Let the fire fall!”
It was a glorious ritual (rightly ended) and I hate to see it reduced to “garbage”. I don’t believe that was your intent but your comments did come off a bit flippant, in my opinion.
Thanks for the perspective! I never experienced the old firefall, so my take is informed only by a documentary on it, which actually played on the hotel TV at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. It’s quite possible they overhyped or embellished the old firefall as something of a cautionary tale? In any case, thank you for sharing!
These pictures are amazing!
BTW, how do you get a high vantage point at the back side of El Capitan? Mirror Lake?
Amazing photos. I can see that you got some of the shots on Wednesday at the Northside picnic grounds. I was the only photographer at the Southside Drive location on Wednesday (very overcast day), but I had a great show for about 7 minutes, one of the most vibrant I have seen. I need to find some more locations. Thanks again, great work.
Are the conditions still good right now to take photos of the firefall?
Absolutely stunning! Thank you for making me aware of this beautiful phenomenon!
Terrific photos as we’ve come to expect from you.
Check out this video on the subject:
Thanks for posting that, John. I hadn’t seen that particular video before. Very cool to see Michael Frye interviewed along with Ansel’s son and Galen Rowell’s son. I definitely need to get over to Galen Rowell’s Gallery in Bishop sooner rather than later. Very interesting to read that Ansel probably witnessed the same effect several times but chose to shoot it in Black and White and that back then, Ansel referred to it as El Capitan Fall. I wonder when it became known as the “Horsetail.”
Awesome video, thanks.
I’d also assume many photographers before Rowell photographed the Firefall. If conditions are right (as they were this year), even the casual tourist is going to stop in their tracks.
Conditions had to have been right a “few” times in the past. Rowell is just the first one who captured an image of it that has become iconic.
So glad that these came out so well for you this year. I know how underwhelmed you were the last time we tried this. The big take away for me on this trip was my new found respect for that North side view, especially if there is mist blowing around and the water is flowing well. It just looks like the cliff burst open and steam is pouring out from the bowels of the earth. I think we got lucky having to stop before we arrived at the picnic area as our angle really caught the light on the mist against the darker cliff behind. Looking forward to seeing more of your shots from the weekend!
Your photos are stunning! Yosemite is my favorite national park but I had never heard of firefall. Glad I was able to experience it with your photos!
Just as a viewer of photos this year had a much bigger impact on me. I can only imagine the difference in person. That first wider shot with the mist is spectacular. I like the wide shots and the way it showcases the light in an otherwise dim scene.
I wish I would’ve got even wider to give people an idea of how striking of a scene this was. Tourists who otherwise had no idea what was going on were stopping to marvel at it as they saw the Firefall out of their car windows. It was amazing.