It may not be literally lit, but it’s definitely figuratively lit.
For several lucky days in mid-to-late February, tourists head to Yosemite National Park to witness a phenomenon known as “Firefall.” Depending on how much water is flowing over one of the Park’s particular waterfalls—Horesetail Fall—the sun setting gives off the illusion that lava, not water, is flowing over the cliff.
According to Firefall’s official website (yes, the sight has its own official webpage!), the phenomenon occurs under particular conditions. If there’s not enough snowpack in February, there will not be enough snowmelt to feed the waterfall, which tumbles 1,570 feet (480 meters) down the east face of El Capitan. Temperatures must also be warm enough so that the snow will melt, and the western sky must be clear when the sun sets. When these conditions are met, the Firefall will occur for approximately 10 minutes. Generally, February 17-19 is thought to be the prime time to see and photograph Firefall, but both the week before and up to four days after the 19th have also been documented as decent times to catch a glimpse—that means this upcoming weekend is likely your last chance to get a look this year.
While no specific permit is required to park your vehicle, before you make the trek toward Firefall, beware the protocols the NPS has implemented. At this point, the popularity of the spectacle has forced the Park to set up a restricted zone from Yosemite Valley Lodge to El Capitan Crossover to reduce traffic congestion. These areas include spaces on Northside Drive between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover and on El Capitan Crossover itself.
“We have a designated parking area at Yosemite Lodge and visitors walk from there to the viewing areas,” said National Park Service spokesman Scott Gediman in a statement. From their parking spots, tourists should expect to trek at least a mile to their desired viewing point, and NPS also recommends they bring such items as a flashlight and boots (in addition to warm clothes, of course).
For more information, Yosemite has a hotline (209-372-0200) with data on weather conditions and road services—Gediman says the area’s recent weather has been “hit or miss” and could possibly affect this year’s viewing.
Tips for Photographing Firefall
According to Firefall’s site, you should arrive to the Park in the morning to find a prime location and return later in the afternoon to stake your viewing spot. The Fall is best captured with a long lens and using a tripod. The top of the Fall is 2,000 feet above the Valley’s floor and you’ll need such a lens for frame purposes. Additionally, because the event occurs in low light, the site says, “a sturdy tripod will stabilize your camera, reducing image blur and resulting in crisp, sharp images.”