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Horsetaill Fall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park glows with the sunset, looking like flowing lava
Yosemite National Park's 'firefall' on El Capitan, captured in 2016. (Steve Corey via Flickr)

Yosemite 'Firefall' 2021: If You Want to Glimpse It, You'll Need Reservations

Yosemite 'Firefall' 2021: If You Want to Glimpse It, You'll Need Reservations

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Every February, photographers and nature lovers alike flock to Yosemite National Park in the hope of glimpsing the famed "firefall": a natural phenomenon that makes Horsetail Fall on El Capitan appear like it's on fire at sunset.

This year, Yosemite's "Firefall Week" began Feb. 12 and lasts through Feb. 24, according to special viewing restrictions imposed by the park.

Photographer Aaron Meyers, who provides Yosemite firefall photography advice and timings on his site, predicts that sunset on Sunday, Feb. 21 will be the optimum date to catch Horsetail Fall this year.

How Does the Yosemite Firefall Happen?

Yosemite Horsetail Fall firefall is a rather particular phenomenon — in order for the full "lava flow" effect to appear, conditions have to be perfect. Horsetail Fall itself, a small waterfall that usually only flows during winter, needs to actually have water in it. It's this water that glows orange when it's lit from behind by the setting sun. The firefall also requires a clear sky, because any haze or cloudiness affects the quality of the illusion.

In 2020, the hoped-for firefall actually failed to fully materialize because of imperfect conditions. On Feb. 11, the National Park Service warned of "little to no water" in Horsetail Fall ahead of the projected 2021 firefall, although that particular alert is no longer visible on Yosemite's firefall webpage.

If you're thinking of trying your luck, keep your eye on park conditions on Yosemite's website and watch the weather forecast. And if conditions aren't perfect to see a Yosemite firefall this year, at least there's plenty of other natural wonders to witness in Yosemite National Park.

In addition to Yosemite's own restrictions within the park, remember that the state of California's current COVID-19 travel recommendations ask that Californians "not travel more than 120 miles from their home for non-essential purposes such as pleasure or recreation."

If you do travel, the state asks that you take appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions, including wearing a face covering, maintaining social distance of 6 feet from people who aren't in your household and frequent hand-washing.

Yosemite's "firefall" in action this year (Stacy Brand)

Making a Reservation for Yosemite Firefall 2021

You can make a Yosemite National Park day reservation for $35 per car (National Park pass holders only pay a $2 reservation fee) through Recreation.gov. Some things to know:

  • Day-use tickets become available two days before the reservation date, at 8 a.m. PT. (That means that if you want to visit on Sunday, Feb. 21, day-use tickets will go online at 8 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 19.)
  • Have an account already made and be logged in, ready to make your reservation. The tickets go fast!
  • If you weren't lucky, don't despair. Yosemite says that canceled reservations become available immediately on Recreation.gov, so it's worth returning to see what might have become available since your last attempt
  • One reservation is needed per vehicle: It doesn't matter how many people are in the vehicle, but the reservation holder must be one of them, and have photo ID to enter the park

These day-use permits are valid for unlimited entries lasting seven days after you first enter. You don't need a day reservation if you have an existing reservation for camping, lodging or a vacation rental in Yosemite National Park.

Make a day reservation for Yosemite National Park.


Know the Restrictions on Viewing

If you're lucky enough to snag a reservation, you should know and plan for the restrictions that'll be in place within Yosemite National Park to limit crowding.

To view Horsetail Fall, park officials say you'll have to park at Yosemite Falls and walk 1.5 miles each way to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area. You're advised to bring warm clothes and a headlamp/flashlight for safety on the walk.

If your vehicle has a disability placard, you will be permitted to drive straight to El Capitan Picnic Area and park there. Detailed instructions for accessing Horsetail Fall can be found on Yosemite National Park's site.

Yosemite National Park says these restrictions are in place owing to a sharp increase in visitors straining to get a glimpse of the firefall phenomenon. One day alone in February 2019, says the park, over 2,000 people gathered to see Horsetail Fall "in areas mostly lacking adequate parking and other facilities," trampling the ground, congregating in the Merced River itself and leaving litter behind them.

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