Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information regarding the 2023 season.
It’s always a good time to visit Yosemite, but the next few weeks will be an especially good time to travel to this popular national park in California.
The reason? Yosemite’s annual “firefall” — an eye-catching optical illusion that, when a few conditions sync up perfectly, makes Horsetail Fall appear to be on fire.
The National Park Service estimates that your chance to see the lights is sometime between Feb. 10 and 27 this year, as the angle of the light at sunset has to strike perfectly, which only happens in mid-to-late February.
The weather must be very clear, and plenty of water needs to flow over the rocks, which is not likely during a particularly dry winter.
If this alignment happens, the waterfall will be transformed into what appears to be a river of fire.
Of course, it’s impossible to guarantee that the firefall phenomenon will happen this year, like most weather-related events. However, this is based on the NPS’ best guess.
As you can imagine, this event attracts many visitors to a small area, resulting in traffic, parking issues and other safety concerns while disrupting natural and cultural resources.
To manage such, Yosemite will require reservations for entry 24 hours per day, from Feb. 10-12, Feb. 17-19 and Feb. 24-26. Reservations are also required at Camp 4, Wawona and Hodgdon Meadow Campgrounds for the month of February since these campgrounds normally operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations can be made online.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Yosemite when the firefall occurs, the El Capitan Picnic Area is your best bet for a good view. It’s about a 1 1/2-mile walk each way from Yosemite Falls parking. If that parking lot is full, consider parking at Yosemite Village or Curry Village and taking advantage of the park’s free shuttle to Yosemite Falls parking and Yosemite Valley Lodge.
In addition, an express shuttle will operate between Yosemite Village and Yosemite Falls parking/Yosemite Valley Lodge, per NPS, which says that patrons should “expect to park far from your viewing area” and to “prepare to walk to and from the viewing area” in the cold and dark.
No matter where you park, be sure to pack comfortable sneakers or hiking boots, a camera and maybe even a chair. You’ll also need plenty of patience to withstand those crowds.
Firefall or no firefall, you can never go wrong with a trip to Yosemite or any one of the stunning national parks around the country. Summer will be here before you know it, and that’s prime time for a visit to the park (or parks!) you’ve had on your to-do list.
Be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to hotels near national parks you can book with points.
Additional reporting by Caroline Tanner.