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Yosemite’s “Firefall” Is Back—Here’s How to See the Natural Phenomenon

AFAR logo AFAR 1/25/2022 Lyndsey Matthews

a close up of a tree covered in snow: Yosemite’s “Firefall” Is Back—Here’s How to See the Natural Phenomenon © Photo by Shutterstock Yosemite’s “Firefall” Is Back—Here’s How to See the Natural Phenomenon

Every year from mid- to late February, the setting sun hits Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall at just the right angle, creating the illusion that the waterfall is on fire. The phenomenon, which is known as the “firefall,” is estimated to happen between February 10–28, 2022, according to the National Park Service.

For the firefall at the 1,575-foot Horsetail Fall—located on the eastern side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley—to be visible, conditions have to be nearly perfect. In addition to clear skies so that the sun can hit the waterfall, there also has to be enough snow melted so that the waterfall is flowing.

This year, the event may be seen as early as February 10 and run until February 28. Prime viewing could last from February 18 through February 23 with the best time to see Yosemite’s firefall being between 5:27 and 5:39 p.m. on February 21, according to forecasts from photographer Aaron Meyers, who has shot the event many times.

a tree with a mountain in the background: The firefall may look like a stream of molten lava, but it’s really an optical illusion. © Photo by Shutterstock The firefall may look like a stream of molten lava, but it’s really an optical illusion.

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How to see the firefall in 2022

Although Yosemite required reservations for last year’s firefall, it has dropped this rule for the 2022 viewing. However, visitors are still required to wear masks and social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Due to the increasing popularity of the event, Yosemite is implementing additional restrictions to control the crowds (which can pose a risk to the environment around the falls) closer to the peak dates of the firefall. From noon to 7 p.m. daily between February 10 and 28, 2022, Southside Drive will be closed to pedestrians, and stopping and parking will also be prohibited.

During that same timeframe, visitors will only be able to gather for views of the falls in the El Capitan picnic area on Northside Drive. While ADA parking access will be allowed here, no one else will be allowed to stop or unload passengers along this road. One lane will be closed to vehicles, allowing pedestrians to safely walk the 1.5 miles from the Yosemite Falls parking lot (near the Yosemite Valley Lodge) to the viewpoint. 

If you plan to visit the falls in person, park officials recommend bringing warm clothes, boots, and a flashlight or headlamp.

The original Yosemite firefall

This firefall illusion has become more and more popular in recent years, but there used to be another version made of actual fire. Up until 1968, the remains of campfires would be pushed over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite on a nightly basis, creating a stream of embers that eventually became known as the Firefall. (See video footage of the event from the 1960s.)

The practice started in 1871 back when the owner of the Glacier Point Hotel would kick embers from the lodge’s campfire over the edge each night. The event became so popular to watch that it continued into the 20th century. After the National Park Service was created in 1916 and Yosemite fell under its protection, the NPS tried to stop the Firefall several times, but it wasn’t fully outlawed for fire safety concerns until nearly 50 years later.

It was after the Firefall was banned that the natural version was noticed. In fact, it took until the early 1970s when the wilderness photographer Galen Rowell captured the firefall-like illusion off the eastern edge of El Capitan and shared his photos. Now that social media exists, the phenomenon only continues to attract more visitors as the years go on.

This article originally appeared online in February 2019; it was updated in February 2021, and January 25, 2022, to include current information.

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