How to Experience Yosemite National Park’s Firefall

Yosemite National Park’s Firefall is probably the most popular natural phenomenon that happens each year in the park. This “event” usually occurs during the last two weeks of February each year. Still, it is dependent on the water levels feeding the seasonal Horsetail Falls and having a clear sky so that the sun can reflect off the water and create the appearance of lava coming down the side of El Capitan. I tried to view it last year, but there was not enough water to feed the waterfall, so when I heard it was happening this year (2019), I packed up all my stuff and made the 6 hour road trip to the park from Southern California. Here is all the information if you want to experience this in 2021.

Here is a video on my trip to visit in 2019, and you can read more about it below.

Details

  • Usually only happens from around Feb 14 – 28
  • Must have enough snow to melt and feed the waterfall
  • Must have clear skies in order for the sun to shine into the valley as it sets
  • This information is from my visit in 2019 and in 2021 they are implementing new changes on where you can park and where you can shoot it from. You will not be able to shoot it from where I did in this post. More information on this year here

Parking

In 2018 they had a permit system for parking near the falls, but in 2019 they did not. In 2019, a lot of roadside parking was not available due to snow, so the closest parking was at Camp 4 / Yosemite Lodge and then you had to walk through the snow to viewing locations. It remains to be seen what they will put in place for the 2020 season.

Viewing Locations

There are a few main viewing locations for Firefall, which are as follows.

El Capitan Picnic Area

El Capitan Picnic Area is the most popular viewing location, and it is where you will see most of the up-close photos of the waterfall. The area does not usually allow parking though (unless they do the permit system again), so you need to park near Camp 4 and then walk about 1.5 miles to get to the viewing spot.

Southside Drive

 

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Southside Drive is the other popular location and the one I was planning on going to but didn’t because of how many people were there. Thanks to Berson Photos for sharing the above photo with us. This area is accessed via a footpath that runs along Southside Drive to the bend in the Merced River. The location provides a great view of the waterfall with El Capitan right behind it, giving that iconic view. The trees block a lot of the viewing areas here though so most of the photographers hang out in one central spot, which can be really busy. I recommend getting there early (before noon, especially on the weekend) if you want to shoot from here.

Since there were so many people here, I ended up walking down another 15 or so minutes until I found a spot with a clear view and not a lot of people.

Once you get set up (I was set up by about 3 PM), then it is a waiting game till the sun goes down (for us it was around 5:30 PM). It’s fun waiting and chatting with all of the other photographers though, and I actually enjoyed the comradery of just hanging out and getting excited with the other people.

The clouds can stop the light from shining on the falls though, so it is stressful to see the clouds start to come in. Many people have made the drive and set up for Firefall, only to have the clouds roll in right at sunset and block the show.

We were lucky, and this did not happen to us. About 10 minutes before sunset, the light hit the falls at just the right angle, and it changed the water to a dark orange, which was amazing to see in person and a beautiful spectacle even without looking through a zoom lens. It was one of those rare times where I was blown away by the beauty of the experience, and it is something I will never forget.

So if the weather is good in 2021 and you decide to go, note these things.

  1. Look at the weather in advance for a day where clear skies are predicted.
  2. Get into the park as early as possible to find a parking spot and stake out where you want to shoot from. Find out where you are allowed to shoot from here.
  3. Bring snacks, a small chair, and whatever else you need to wait for the 3-4 hours before sunset.
  4. Make sure to take a few minutes just to enjoy the show and not watch it all through your camera’s viewfinder.
  5. Plan to walk in the snow, bring warm weather gear, and a flashlight on the way back.
  6. Bring a zoom lens; I used the 70-200 zoom lens for these photos.

I hope that helps you see this amazing natural phenomenon. Let me know if you have more questions in the comments.

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