Lonely Planet Writer

Here’s how to see the epic firefall at Yosemite in California – if it happens this year

In February, an incredible phenomenon lights up the already stunning scenery of California’s Yosemite National Park, as the mid-February sunset causes a waterfall on El Capitan to appear as though it’s on fire.

A winter sunset lights up the famous Firefall in Yosemite National Park, California. Image by Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images

The “firefall” at Horsetail Fall has been drawing in thousands of visitors in recent years, leading Yosemite National Park officials to launch a new program this year to help manage the crowds of eager, and often camera-wielding, travellers. From now until 26 February, visitors will require a permit to enter the site and get a glimpse of the phenomenon – but this year’s dry conditions mean there might not be anything to see.

The surge in travellers wanting to see the spectacle has led to traffic jams in previous years, with more than 1000 vehicles travelling into the area at one time. To manage this, the national park is working in partnership with The Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite Conservancy, and Yosemite Hospitality to ensure public access, while managing the number of cars in the area.

To help solve the problem, the national park has created an “event zone” inside the Yosemite Valley. Guests can enter to view the falls by walking from El Capitan Meadow or the Yosemite Falls Parking Area, taking a naturalist-guided tour, or picking up a permit to park in the event zone. There will be 250 free permits available each day through online reservations and 50 on a first-come-first-served basis. The reservations are available here and the day-of permits are available each day from 9 am to 3 pm at The Ansel Adams Gallery. Those who would prefer to just walk to the site can park in the Yosemite Falls day parking area, at El Capitan Meadow, or take a free park shuttle to Shuttle Stop #7 and walk to the site, which is about 1.2 miles one way.

However, even though the new system is in place, there might not be much to see anytime soon. Yosemite National Park has posted updates on the site, explaining that it is still dry and there’s no precipitation in the forecast. According to the park’s website: “the ‘firefall’ effect happens during the second half of February when there is a clear sky and enough snow for the waterfall to flow.”