In 1973, National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell made the journey to Yosemite National Park. The sun was setting over a clear February day when suddenly, the water cascading down the east side of El Capitan gleamed orange and red. Horsetail Fall became Firefall before his eyes, the liquid more closely resembling burning hot embers than the clear waters of Yosemite.
The Firefall had been photographed at least once before – by renowned photographer Ansel Adams, no less. Rowell’s photograph, however, was the one to catch the eye of countless adventurers around the world. Word of the mock molten lava spread like wildfire, photographers venturing from far and wide to capture the flickering falls on film.
In the last 50 years, Yosemite’s Firefall has gone from a magical secret to a must-see attraction the world over. As such, hopeful photographers can no longer embark on an impromptu visit to the falls. To prevent overcrowding, Yosemite National Park has been forced to place restrictions on the area.
Yosemite Requiring Reservations to Visit the Firefall in 2023
For the second year in a row, reservations will be required to enter the park during peak Firefall hours on the weekends of Feb. 10-12, Feb. 17-19, and Feb. 24-26, even for those not interested in Horsetail Fall. And while campers are usually welcome on a first-come, first-served basis, they’ll need a reservation as well between Feb. 1 and Feb. 28.
To make a reservation for a chance to catch a glimpse of Yosemite National Park’s Firefall, visit Recreation.gov.
“Historically, the sunset backlight on Horsetail Fall was little known,” Yosemite National Park explained regarding the new reservation requirement. “However, in recent years, visitation around this event has increased dramatically.”
In 2019, over 2,000 visitors crowded the site, gathering “in areas mostly lacking adequate parking and other facilities.”
Unfortunately, the crowds gathering on riverbanks and fields increased erosion and trampled vegetation in the park. “As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, trampling sensitive vegetation and exposing themselves to unsafe conditions,” the park said. “Some undeveloped areas became littered with trash, and the lack of restrooms resulted in unsanitary conditions.”
Good Luck Snapping the Perfect Picture of Yosemite’s Fiery Falls
Snagging a reservation to visit Yosemite on a Firefall day is just step one of the journey. You see, in addition to being enormously popular, Yosemite’s Firefall is also incredibly elusive. The fiery phenomenon occurs in a tiny window in late February, and that’s far from the only limitation.
To be visible, the water must be backlit by the sunset on a clear sky in the exact correct position. Also, Horsetail Falls may or may not be there on the day in question. A relatively small waterfall, Horsetail must have enough melting ground snow feeding it to cause the liquid bonfire to flow over the edge of El Capitan.
Oh – and it’s really only visible for five to fifteen minutes per day. But if the waterfall has enough water, the skies are clear, and you’re at the falls at the perfect time of day, you might be the one to snap the next National Geographic-worthy photo.