Yosemite National Park, one of the oldest national parks in the U.S., is home to one of the most beautiful natural wintertime phenomena you can see in the country. The Horsetail Fall, also known as the Firefall, is a splendid vision coming off El Capitan Mountain in two distinct streams. The water pours down 1,570 feet onto slabs below, spraying a mist on that surface and then falling another 500 feet to the bottom of the magnificent mountain.
Witness The Fiery Falls Of Yosemite
What makes witnessing Firefall such a unique and distinct experience is twofold: First, the Firefall is only active for two brief weeks -- the last weeks of February. Then, poof. The mysterious glory is gone for another year. Secondly, the waterfall appears as flowing lava during sunset and dusk as the sun sinks below the horizon each night. As the radiant, glowing sunlight hits the waterfall, the change occurs. It will look like melted snow’s been magically turned into molten, flowing lava, cascading down the mountainside into the pools below.
Somehow, just the right angle is struck between the water, the rocks, and the direction of the sunlight, and that’s what makes this magic happen for these two short weeks in mid-winter. The conditions have to be right, with no clouds or fog, just the right angle, and, of course, enough snowmelt coming down the mountain to feed the fall an adequate amount of free-flowing water.
How To Get To The Waterfall
The best Firefall viewing point is the El Capitan Picnic Area. But if the picnic area is too crowded or too challenging to get to (it’s a one-mile hike in from the parking area, often through relatively deep snow) great views can be had of the stunning sight from other locations as well.
The parking area near Cathedral Beach also offers splendid views of the Firefall and is much easier to get to for those with any mobility issues.
Before You Go See The Fall
If you want to visit Horsetail Fall during a time when you can see the glow (that is, in late February), you’ll need to pay attention to a few details and rules of the park. Thanks to the increased popularity of the phenomenal sight, nearby parking has become limited. Only those with disability placards are permitted to park near the El Capitan picnic grounds, but it’s worth the hike in from other parking zones, as this locale provides you with the best views of the fall.
You should also be aware that there is no guarantee that the “fire” will strike during your visit. Certain conditions must be met for the magic to happen. Heavy enough snowfall in the winter, warm enough temperatures for snowmelt, and a clear sky to the west all make or break the event.
You’ll want to be in position for viewing at least half an hour ahead of sunset, and longer if you want to get a really great spot. Because the event is so rare, tourists pour into the area, crowding the common viewing areas quickly. You’ll see things starting to “happen” about 15 minutes before sunset, so you’ll want to find your viewing spot about 30 minutes before that.
If you’re headed west to witness the Firefall, consider booking a stay at one of these eight gorgeous glamping spots near Yosemite National Park.
As of June 11, 2020, visitors need a day-use reservation in order to enter Yosemite. For more information about park guidelines, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.