Yosemite Firefall

Yosemite Firefall 2013 & How to enjoy the Yosemite Sunset

This weekend I got to check an item off of my Yosemite Bucket List: seeing the Yosemite firefall! Curtis and I spent two evenings (Saturday and Sunday, February 23rd and 24th) among a flock of fancy cameras & photographers waiting for the sun to set in just the perfect way on Horsetail Falls. Except calling it “Horsetail Falls” is a bit of a stretch – perhaps we should temporarily label it as “Horsetail slightly damp spot, with some spray if you have binoculars/a telescoping lens.” But no worries, with the perfect sunset it still looks like a stream of cascading fire! And, what if there isn’t the perfect sunset? Then you get a wonderfully cloudy Yosemite winter sunset, which in not too shabby either.

Sunset on El Capitan

Saturday: No firefall, but still beautiful

What is the Yosemite Firefall?

Backtracking a bit, the first firefall I learned about after moving to Groveland is the one often displayed in historic postcards, the man made Glacier Point firefall. For the man made firefall park workers would dump embers off off Glacier Point much to the amusement of to amuse the guests at Camp Curry below. This was of course discontinued before the modern age of park management, understandably because it doesn’t keep with the Park Service’s mission (Conservation and education, not being the Disneyland of the Sierra). But, because the Yosemite always finds a way to be cooler than Disneyland, it turns out that there is a natural version of this firefall!

The natural Yosemite firefall happens as the sunsets throwing a perfect beam of sunlight Horsetail falls in late February every year. As the majority of the sun disappears beyond the horizon the just a thin strip of sunset falls into the valley illuminating the falls. It is amazing because it is both amazingly dependable like clockwork, but also fragile and dependent on weather conditions  For the perfect firefall you need to not only show up on the right dates (Google: “Yosemite Firefall 2013” or whichever year it is to figure out when to show up), but as well have clear skies, a wet year, and maybe a warmer day to melt the snow for the falls to be running.

Watching the Yosemite Firefall

On Saturday we drove into the park and found that the firefall is a big enough event in the park to warrant the closing of one of lanes around the Valley Loop Drive to allow for parking! We found our spot to watch the falls by driving the loop until we saw a group of expensive cameras and decided arbitrarily that this was a nice enough spot. The photographers were really quite nice, and explained that the spot we picked isn’t as popular as near the El Cap Picnic Area (much closer to the falls), but offers some of the most scenic framing of the shot. I liked how we could watch Yosemite falls in the distance, which is actually running, while waiting for sunset.

Waiting for the Firefall

Another prerequisite for waiting for the firefall: Patience. The event doesn’t happen until RIGHT before sundown, so enjoy your time in Valley as you see fit.

We chose to stay on Saturday even though the conditions were not perfect, out of hope that the clouds might part allowing the perfect sunbeam in. Although this did not happen we still got some beautiful shots of the sunset, which are in the photo gallery at the end of this post.

Sunday brought clear skies, and we returned again to the Valley to see the firefall… and it was wonderful.

Yosemite Firefall 2013

I loved the plane contrail on this photo

Yosemite Firefall 2013

Close up of the Yosemite Firefall

A few Lessons Learned about capturing the Firefall

So, to recap here are the lessons I learned about capturing the Yosemite firefall:

  • The firefall doesn’t happen until at the last few minutes of sundown. This means you should dress warmly, bring a chair or blanket, and pack a snack if you plan on being early to get a “Good spot,” otherwise just show up in the last half hour and you should be fine.
  • Look for photographers setting up their tripods as you go around the loop, if there is a large number in one spot then that is a good spot to watch from!
  • Aim for a day with clear skies, but preferably after a weather event so there will be water in the falls.


We took so many pictures on this trip, more then I think we have taken on many of our backpacking trips! A selected few are below.

Bridal Veil Falls in February

On day two we took some time to look at Bridal Veil falls before settling back into firefall watching mode.