The Window for Yosemite’s Annual ‘Firefall’ Is Officially Open, But Will It Even Show Up?

Photo: Engel Ching/Shutterstock

Every year around this time, a gorgeous natural phenomenon occurs in Yosemite National Park. It’s called “Firefall” and it only happens for about two weeks in the winter (typically starting around Valentine’s Day).

It occurs on Horsetail Fall, which regularly flows over the eastern edge of El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. At certain times of the day, the sunlight catches the waterfall at just the right angle, illuminating the rushing water and creating what looks like molten lava flowing over the edge of the cliff. It is a captivating display of nature at its finest. So much so, that thousands of photographers and onlookers from all over the world gather at the Valley floor each year to catch a glimpse of the magic.

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However, this year, the National Park Service has recently issued some disappointing news: Horsetail Fall has little to no water.

So what does this mean for Firefall 2020? Well, that remains to be seen. If any rain falls within the brief time window, then there could be enough runoff for Firefall to make an appearance. However, at the time of this writing, the weather forecast for Yosemite doesn’t project much rainfall in the next two weeks. It has to be a perfect storm of several different weather variables coinciding (notably the cloud cover and amount of water flow) for the illusion to make its display. Sadly, that possibility is looking bleak this year.

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Photo: DTM Media/Shutterstock

Yosemite’s original Firefall dates back to 1872. The way the story goes, James McCauley, owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel, inadvertently started it during summer months, when he would build a large campfire atop Glacier Point to entertain his hotel guests. At the end of the evening, he would simply kick the embers over the edge of the cliff. It didn’t take long for visitors below to catch glimpses of flame cascade. Before long, McCauley began fielding requests to see the “firefall” regularly. Taking advantage of a business opportunity, his sons took donations to haul more and more wood to the top, creating a spectacle for visitors at the Valley floor. After years of entertainment, the Glacier Point Firefall was put to an end on Jan. 25, 1968.

In 1973, within months of the 100-year anniversary of the original Firefall, Galen Rowell took the first-known photograph of the “Natural Firefall” at Horsetail Fall. The rest is history.

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Also worth note: Due to overly large crowds of spectators and photographers from last year, the park has now put new restrictions regarding parking and viewing areas in 2020.

“In recent years, visitation around this event has increased dramatically,” stated the park service. “For example, on February 22, 2019, over 2,000 visitors viewing Horsetail Fall gathered in areas mostly lacking adequate parking and other facilities. Visitors spilled onto riverbanks, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation.”

Be sure to check the NPS website for all of the specifics about where you can park—and where you can post up to view Horsetail Fall—before you hit the road out to Yosemite.

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