Every year, in mid-to-late February, if the weather is just right, Yosemite's 2,030-foot tall Horsetail Fall becomes illuminated by light cast by the setting sun. This creates a gorgeous visual illusion in which the waterfall literally looks like fire flowing down El Capitan's rock face. It's a breathtaking experience! However, due not only to the brief span of time in which the Firefall occurs but also Yosemite's own restrictions to prevent overcrowding, you'll need to plan carefully if you want to work this landmark into your next trip to Yosemite.
Though El Capitan is a stunning natural feature year-round, the Firefall effect only happens for a few weeks in late winter. If you plan to camp, Yosemite asks that you make a campground reservation approximately a year in advance. If camping isn't your thing, you can make a reservation at the Ahwahnee, Wawona Hotel, or Yosemite Valley Lodge. Be advised, these hotels also fill up fast, especially during the Firefall season! You don't need a reservation to make a day trip into the park, though you'll still need to secure lodging outside of the park.
You'll be visiting Yosemite at the tail end of winter, which means it's likely to be quite chilly! On average, it snows there for about a quarter of the time in February. The average high is 52*F, and the average low is 31*F. So make sure to pack enough warm weather gear, especially if you're camping, to stay safe and comfortable. Plan on wearing layers, and make sure your outerwear and shoes are waterproof.
In addition to any camping or lodging reservations, the park service also requires visitors to obtain a parking permit specifically for El Capitan and the Firefall and cap them at 250 permits per day. These permits are for a carload, so you can fill up an SUV or van with all your travel companions and only need to share one permit. It's best to reserve these permits online; however, if you miss your window, the park also issues 50 permits the day of, on a first-come, first-serve basis, starting at 9 am. If you missed your chance to get a permit, don't worry, you have a few other options.
If you missed a permit or prefer roughing it, you can also hike. If you're driving in for the day, park at the day-use parking areas for El Capitan Meadow. If you're staying in the park for more than just the day, you can take the free shuttle to Stop #7. Be advised that in all cases, the walk is at least a mile, so wear good hiking boots and bring water.
The Firefall effect only happens at sunset, so time your arrival carefully so as not to arrive too late. In mid-to-late February, sunset begins roughly between 5:30 and 5:45 pm, depending on the exact day. For best results, plan to arrive around 4:30, so you can still take in the stunning views in daylight. Sunset lasts for about an hour. If you plan to hike back, it'll be nightfall, so remember to bring a flashlight and warm jacket.
To preserve Yosemite's natural beauty, the park service has implemented several rules meant to reduce the impact that up to two thousand visitors have on the local wildlife. Currently, pedestrians are not permitted on Southside Drive, nor are cars allowed to stop. Stopping on Northside Drive is prohibited except for ADA-related reasons, and only one lane will be open for cars. The other will be for pedestrian access. These rules may change, so check with a ranger to see what's open.
Yosemite National Park was created in 1890 by a Congress who valued preserving its beauty for not only their generation but future generations as well. The current park service works hard to preserve Yosemite's stunning majesty. Help them out by refraining from littering, picking flowers, or otherwise disturbing the wildlife. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!
Once you reach El Capitan, the only thing left to do is enjoy the breathtaking sight! Photography is very much allowed, so snap as many shots as you like. Track how the Firefall changes color based on the angle of viewing or as the sun sinks lower past the horizon. The effect will last for about an hour.
Though the Firefall is in a class all its own, it's not the only sunset-related natural phenomenon in Yosemite. The rising and setting sun turns the beautiful rocks around Glacier Point and Half Dome a beautiful shade of pink. Though you need a separate permit to hike Half Dome, the rest of the rock formations are accessible to anyone. The effect is year-round, but prepare for a hike!
Though the Firefall and Half Dome are some of Yosemite's best-known attractions, there's much more to see and do in the thousand-plus square miles of the park. Try rafting down the Merced River, hike around the Tuolumne Meadows, enjoy Sunday brunch at the Ahwahnee, or even take one of several mountaineering and rock climbing classes offered by Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service. As always, check ahead of time to see what's open and scheduled when you visit!