I went to Yosemite for firefall — and almost missed it


When sunlight hits a tiny waterfall on the eastern side of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, it glows a gorgeous orange or red. For two weeks of the year, Horsetail Fall becomes firefall. The phenomenon only occurs in February, drawing thousands of revelers to the park.

This year, I was one of them. I gave up 36 hours of my life last weekend for an unlikely chance to see Yosemite National Park’s firefall — and almost missed it.

The viral sensation has led park officials to put a weekend reservation system in place for the duration of the natural event, along with strict traffic regulations and a heavy presence of park rangers throughout Yosemite Valley. Conditions must be absolutely perfect for visitors to catch a glimpse of the firefall, and chances to see it increase as the month goes on.

This year, the best chance to see the firefall in all its glory is Feb. 19 through 24, with Feb. 22 the ideal date to attend, according to park officials. I went during the earliest part of the firefall window for weekend reservations, Saturday, Feb. 11, a date not even rated on Yosemite’s firefall viewing guide for the chances of seeing it.

Photographers line the street across from El Capitan for a chance to shoot the firefall on Feb. 11, 2023.

Photographers line the street across from El Capitan for a chance to shoot the firefall on Feb. 11, 2023.

Eric Brooks

Many have made the trek to Yosemite only to be disappointed. I figured I’d join that group after the weather forecast solidified with a chance of snow in the morning, rain in the early afternoon and cloudy skies all day until sunset at 5:33 p.m. With reservations made and bags packed, I started the four-hour drive, knowing the end goal was unlikely. 

Given the park’s firefall reservation system and a lack of available lodging, I only had one night to see it, and it wasn’t looking good. The forecast was grim, so the likelihood of seeing it was minimal, at best.

But Horsetail Fall defied the odds.

Even with the weather forecast in dire shape, I fully expected long lines of vehicles and a long wait to enter as I neared the park. To my amazement, only one truck was waiting at the entrance upon arrival. “The forecast might have scared people away,” a park ranger told me. The same conditions held once I entered Yosemite Valley, with hardly any traffic and smooth sailing to my overnight destination in Curry Village.

That’s the other part of this adventure that made it a true Yosemite experience.

Because you don’t know if you can enter the park until a firefall entrance reservation is secured, the only lodging that was available when I went to make the booking was a heated tent in Curry Village. Temperatures were expected to dip into the mid-30s overnight, so my hopes rested on the tent’s heater. 

Spoiler alert: It worked just fine.

After checking in and unpacking, it was time to start the journey down to the El Capitan Picnic Area on the east side of the park. For this, I rode one of Yosemite’s free shuttles. The bus was packed with hopeful firefall visitors, and we all got off at the same stop along Northside Drive at the end of the line, a mile and a half from the viewing site (part of the park’s effort to rid the roads of congestion and a parking free-for-all). The clouds still hadn’t cleared as expected at this point, so the short hike felt a bit silly but necessary, since we all came this far already. 

If you’re hoping to drive in, don’t. Park officials are serious about trying to prevent parking mayhem. As I walked, officials were issuing $280 tickets to drivers in at least two vehicles to the side of the road in the prohibited zone between Camp 4 and the El Capitan Crossover.

Firefall hopefuls watch as clouds obscure Horsetail Falls on Yosemite's El Capitan on Feb. 11, 2023.

Firefall hopefuls watch as clouds obscure Horsetail Falls on Yosemite’s El Capitan on Feb. 11, 2023.

Eric Brooks

I stopped at an information booth hosted by the Yosemite Conservancy. It was there I chatted with a volunteer, who laughed when I asked if we’d see the firefall that night: “Oh no. Unless God decides to clear the clouds, you won’t be seeing it tonight.”

The sad walk to my unlikely viewing party continued.

There was still no sun visible behind the valley fog obscuring the top of El Capitan when I arrived at one of two viewing areas the crowds had congregated in just off the road. The meadow was littered with photographers armed with long lenses and people who brought lawn chairs for comfortable viewing. That’s where I met Tammy Cody and her 13-year-old son, Henry. The pair, along with Tammy’s partner and Henry’s younger brother, had traveled from San Luis Obispo earlier in the day and were planning to stay at Yosemite the entire weekend for a couple of chances to see the firefall. 

They remained undeterred, despite the dim chance on Saturday. “We’ve been [to Yosemite National Park] a couple times and it’s so, so cool. So pretty,” Henry told me. “So even if we don’t see the firefall, I think it’ll still be worth it to be here.”

Tammy agreed. “When I saw there were openings for lodging for firefall, I knew that we had to at least try,” she said. “We come a lot to Yosemite. So, we know that it’s crowded. We get to be part of like this huge group of people that’s also really stoked to see something like this.” 

Unlike many of the approximately 500 people in the area, Tammy and Henry didn’t bring binoculars or a long-range camera. They were planning to watch and enjoy the moment together, camera-free. “I feel like we enjoy things a little bit less sometimes when we focus on getting a good picture of it,” she added.

With about 20 minutes until sunset, the clouds and fog gave way. Horsetail Fall itself could now be seen. But much fog remained around the top of El Capitan. You couldn’t see the sun, just clouds and patchy skies as time marched inexorably to sunset. 

Clouds continue to obscure El Capitan as the sunset approaches at 5:30 p.m on Feb. 11, 2023.

Clouds continue to obscure El Capitan as the sunset approaches at 5:30 p.m on Feb. 11, 2023.

Eric Brooks

My small chance to see the firefall was faint, and getting fainter. The crowd was tense, but hopes remained high, even as a baby had an epic meltdown nearby. As the seconds ticked by, many turned their backs to Horsetail Fall.

Twenty minutes became 10, then 10 minutes shrunk to two.

The fog and clouds were unrelenting.

Finally, the sunset came … and went. Nothing. It wasn’t going to happen.

But we knew that already, right?

Dejected, I gathered my things and started the cold, 1.5-mile journey back to the shuttle stop, along with about 100 others. Another 400 or so people stayed in place, presumably to take it all in before heading back for the night.

I had gotten about 100 yards down the road when it happened. First it was one loud shout, then another. A chorus of cheers erupted across Yosemite Valley. It was happening. Oh no. I turned, but with trees obstructing my view, I could no longer see Horsetail Fall. I’ll spare you the four-letter word that came out of my mouth as I ran back to my original spot while simultaneously fumbling for my phone to get a photo. 

When I got there, what I saw was absolutely stunning and more beautiful than I had imagined. Because the conditions were so unique, what normally shows as an orange color turned pink as the last bit of sunlight squeezed through the fog, which hung around the waterfall to create a very gloomy scene. 

The day's last sunbeams turn Horsetail Fall pink at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2023.

The day’s last sunbeams turn Horsetail Fall pink at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2023.

Eric Brooks

It lasted for only 60 seconds, of which I saw less than half. In the end, Tammy and Henry were right: No photo from a normal camera — much less my cellphone — could capture the beauty that’s created when Horsetail Fall becomes firefall.  

“It seemed impossible to see the Firefall,” photographer Andy Sun, who was also there that day, wrote on Instagram. “But Yosemite never failed us with its beauty – when the Sun hit the horizon a beam of sunlight shone through the clouds and fogs, threw a pink light on Horsetail fall – a surreal Firefall was created, for less than a minute.” 

Apparently, a park ranger had warned him earlier that “sometimes you need to wait till the very last second for the Firefall to show up.”

Truer words have never been spoken.


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