How to See Firefall in Yosemite National Park (#2 of 1000 Experiences)

It doesn’t matter how many pictures I see… the world still astounds me. I’m still surprised on a regular basis, and I live for those moments of wonder. And though I thought I knew what to expect with Yosemite’s famed Firefall, I wasn’t prepared for the actual experience.

Keep reading to hear our story and how to catch it for yourself!

Yosemite's Firefall at the height of the phenomenon | BIG tiny World Travel

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The Story

As a photographer, of course I’ve seen images of this annual phenomenon. I thought it’d be cool to catch it one of these years, but knowing it’s very popular, I wasn’t making any immediate plans to join the crowds.

Aaron and I were gifted a national parks pass, so we jumped at the opportunity to join a friend in Death Valley. However, with such a long drive, we decided to break it up by spending a few days in Yosemite National Park.

Aaron and Brianna posing in front of a snowy valley behind them in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

If you’ve been following for a while, you’ll have seen some of my stories from my previous snowy visit to Yosemite, and I was eager to share the magic scenery with Aaron. But after the deadly Koosh ball, he was ready to write the park off.

Fortunately, I believe Firefall changed that.

What is Firefall?

The evening sun shining on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

Firefall is a fascinating natural phenomenon that occurs every winter in Yosemite National Park. The setting sun illuminates Horsetail Fall at just the right angle that the water appears to glow like flowing lava. Due to rainy and snowy conditions, it is best viewed in October or February, though the latter typically has more water in the waterfall.

Interestingly enough, there’s actually a manmade Firefall that predates this one!

Beginning in 1872, James McCauley built bonfires for his guests at the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel and would extinguish them each night by pushing the embers off the cliff into the valley below. The practice continued off-and-on until it was finally banned in 1968.

It wasn’t until after this, in 1973, that the natural Firefall at Horsetail Fall was first documented.

Our experience

We weren’t originally planning on stopping by Yosemite, so we certainly weren’t planning on Firefall. In fact, it wasn’t until our friend mentioned that our visit would coincide with the event that we even realized it was happening.

As a photographer, of course I was going to take advantage of the opportunity!

Aaron holding the travel kitties as it snows in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

Our first day was very snowy. We even had some fun short hikes amidst the giant flakes. It was beautiful, but wet. I was glad for my waterproof layers.

That evening dried up, but the sky was still riddled with clouds, so I didn’t hold much hope for seeing it (after all, the sun is required for Firefall).

That didn’t stop us from camping out near Horsetail Fall around sundown, just in case. We met another hopeful photographer, and he remarked how fortunate we were to be able to even park on the side of the street. Apparently, the park had been blocking all parking areas to control the flow of traffic along the main valley loop.

Fog gripping the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

He was pleasant to chat with, but the evening proved unfruitful.

And then we had a miserable time getting back to our hotel

A second try at Firefall

Panoramic view of the snowy valley under blue skies just outside of Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

Waking up the next day, we were much more hopeful. The puffy white clouds made for some spectacular photography (my favorite!), but I mildly worried about them impacting Firefall. However, the sun was out, and we had a great chance of an unobstructed illumination of the fall.

As the evening approached, we scoped out parking and vantages, already noting the closed parking areas all along the side of the road. And while we had planned to set up a bit closer to sunset, the throngs of spectators already gathering prompted us to show up nearly two hours beforehand.

The view of Yosemite National Park from Tunnel View, with the sun shining and white clouds in the sky | BIG tiny World Travel

Not wanting to park in the main lot at the village with everyone else, we elected to take the advice of the gentlemen from the night prior and parked on the west end of the valley (this would also make for a faster exit, ahead of most of the other visitors).

We then hiked about two miles east to where we could properly view Horsetail Fall. I’m glad we brought chairs for the wait, but I didn’t appreciate carrying them that distance!

The crowds awaiting the Firefall phenomenon in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

I couldn’t believe the number of people there. During my last winter visit, there was hardly anyone there; we practically had the park to ourselves. But this felt much more like peak summertime.

And there was a buzz in the air as everyone anticipated the unique sight.

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As the sun slowly set, the band of light narrowed and grew more orange. I took many pictures, eager for the magical moment for when it would align into a fine ray on the water and make it look like liquid fire.

But then it just…. faded.

Hosetail Fall as the sun fades on the face of El Capitan just before Firefall in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

Was that it?

I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. Perhaps I had put too much expectation on it, and it couldn’t live up to what I’d pictured. I didn’t expect to get photos like I’d seen online (those are usually doctored, anyway), but I guess I still thought there’d be something… more.

Deflated, folks around me began packing up their cameras and folding their chairs. That sure was a lot of hype for not much payoff. Bummer.

Unwilling to give up, I just sat there for a minute.

The leviathan

And to my immense delight, it came back!

I’m not sure if it was a cloud or the opposing cliff on the other side of the valley, but the sun wasn’t done; it was back for an encore even better than the show! And while people were already beginning to walk back to their cars, I was back to my camera with a renewed fire (pun intended!).

As I watched, it just kept getting better and better. I simply couldn’t believe it.

And in all honesty, there wasn’t much water in the fall, so I didn’t get much of the lava fall effect. However, the sun also illuminated the rock face, making it appear as though a fiery leviathan was overlooking the valley. I think I actually liked that better!

The sun glowing on Horsetail Fall, creating the famed Firefall phenomenon and making the rock look like a lava leviathan in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

The illusion was mind-blowing. It legitimately looked like lava was seeping out of the cliff face. I couldn’t take enough pictures of it.

And some folks were already walking away, missing it entirely.

I couldn’t get over how crazy it looked. The shock of something so beautifully unique was euphoric. This is why I travel. This is what I live for.

And we caught it completely by accident.

The Lesson

If you go…

  • Plan ahead (i.e. don’t do what we did – we got lucky). Look up the dates (easily found online), and plan at least several days to account for unpredictable weather.
  • Scope out your viewing spot ahead of time. It gets really crowded during this event!
  • Bring a chair, some snacks, and warm clothing. You should get there well before sunset, which means you’ll be sitting for a while, and it’ll get cold.
  • If you’re photographing it, bring a sturdy tripod and as long a lens as you can. You’ll want to capture those details.
  • Be ready to hike into your viewing spot. The park closes all parking along the main loop roads, so you’ll have to park either in the main lot near Yosemite Village or at the west end where the road crosses the river. Either way, expect a trek of 1-2 miles each way for viewing.
  • Don’t leave as soon as the light disappears! If you haven’t seen the fiery red yet, it’ll come back (provided the skies are clear).

Want more travel experiences like these in your life?

Removing financial barriers and adding remote sources of income is the fastest way to travel more often and for longer periods (a month in Southern Italy, anyone?).

The Unlimited Travelers Club will show you how to do it!

Read how to unlimit your travels here!

We mostly got lucky on this one, but sometimes, that’s just how things work out! Be open to these opportunities, and accept whatever comes. Sometimes there’s nothing to write home about… and sometimes something magical happens!

Brianna posing in front of the Tunnel View vista of Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

What is the most unique natural phenomenon you’ve witnessed?

Psst… don’t miss these other national park experiences:

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