Horsetail Fall Event
What To Expect
When Traveling to See Horsetail Fall
Darvin Atkeson
Blog What to Expect when Traveling to see Horsetail Fall -- Yosemite’s Natural Firefall
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Alex Silgalis | 12/01/2020 | Hiking, Photography, Waterfalls, Winter Fun |   

The sight of a ribbon of “fire” off a cliffside is something you would imagine seeing in a Lord of the Rings film. And as such, the “legend” of the annual formation of the Horsetail Fall as Yosemite’s natural Firefall has become a global phenomenon. With that being said, here’s the scoop on Horsetail Fall.

It's Horsetail Fall Not Horsetail Falls

For those in the know, hearing people call Horsetail Fall plural is like hearing nails on a chalkboard. It's just wrong. How come? With Yosemite being the showcase of waterfalls, the definition is important. As nouns, the difference between a waterfall versus waterfalls is that if the river or creek flows off a cliffside in one unique movement or drop, it’s considered a “fall.” While “falls”, also called "cascades", generally means there are several distinct drops or falls in a particular section of a stream. A great example to illustrate the differences - Yosemite Falls which is actually made up for three sections; Upper Yosemite Fall (a single drop), the middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall (another single drop).

How Did Yosemite’s Natural Firefall Get Global Fame

Horsetail Falls lights up.  Photo by Darvin Atkeson

While the natural Firefall event of the Horsetail Fall that happens in February has been around for as long as Yosemite has existed, no one really knew about it until Galen Rowell took the first-known color photograph in 1973 for National Geographic (Interesting aside - in or around 1952 Ansel Adams did capture what was known at that time as El Capitan Fall. But since it was black and white, the unique colorful and fiery event we know of today was not conveyed). Now with the advent of digital photography and social media, this helped propel the ephemeral event into stardom.

The “Original” Firefall At Glacier Point

For almost a century rangers created nightly bonfires at  Glacier Point that were pushed over the cliffs toward spectators located in Curry Village below. The idea originated inadvertently in 1872 with James McCauley, the owner of the Glacier Point Mountain Hotel. Every night during the summer, he would build a campfire to entertain his guests. To extinguish the fire, he would kick the smoldering embers over the cliff. It didn’t take long for the visitors 3000 feet down below in Yosemite Valley who saw the embers tumbling down the cliff to request the Yosemite Valley Lodge to see the “Firefall.” And thus, the Yosemite Firefall was born.

The “natural” Firefall, is much more natural and of course, rare, depending on a good stream of water flowing over Horsetail Fall, a clear sky and the right light hitting the cliffs at the right time to produce the desired effect.

Event Comes To A Screeching Halt

Making a "Y" for Yosemite at Glacier Point.  Photo by Steve MontaltoOver 25 years, McCauley kept this tradition until he was evicted from Glacier Point. As years went by, the Yosemite Valley Hotel owner, David Curry, kept hearing visitors fondly remembering that activity. So, he brought it back for special occasions. This continued until 1913 when the park service banned it due to a possible leasing dispute with Mr. Curry. Reinstated in 1917, the display continued again with a break during WWII and was finally ended in 1968 by the director of the National Park Service, George B. HartzogHis thought and rightly so was that it was an unnatural spectacle more fitting for Disneyland instead of a National Park.

While long gone, its memory is still deeply embedded in Yosemite’s history. It's as if you can still hear the master of ceremonies in Camp Curry bellowing out the following exchange with the firemaster at Glacier Point…

“Hello, Glacier Point!”

“Hello, Camp Curry!”

“Is the fire ready?”

“The fire is ready!”

“Let the Fire Fall!”

“The Fire Falls!”

The “Perfect Storm” Must Happen

Like many natural phenomena, everything needs to align for it to become a reality. First, the setting sun must be at the right angle which happens to be around the second week of February. Second, the snowpack needs to be deep enough to generate enough water flow over El Capitan. Third, the sky needs to be crystal clear. We’re talking not a single cloud or haze even near the horizon. And if everything aligns for that perfect moment, it lasts for only a few, fleeting minutes.

Horsetail Fall Event

Horsetail Fall all aglow as the last rays of the setting sun light it up.  Photo by Darvin Atkeson.

Level Set Your Expectations

With such a short time window and so many elements to intersect, it’s a tough sight to see. As we said above, the popularity of trying to feast your eyes on this wonder in person has skyrocketed. From once only a few keen observers to now hundreds and possibly thousands of spectators for 2021. If you do travel to attempt seeing this attraction, be aware of the new rules.

New Rules To See Horsetail Fall

Note - starting February 8th, Yosemite is requiring all guest to have reservations to enter the park. More information can be found here.  

The event has become popular over the last few years, very popular in fact. Crowds have burgeoned with hundreds of intrepid viewers gathering at the viewing areas on some days and both safety issues and damage around viewing areas have occurred.  To address this, Yosemite National Park has implemented some key restrictions for 2021 which will be in effect from February 13th through the 25th, noon to 7pm.  From the park: view Horsetail Fall, park at Yosemite Falls parking (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge) and walk 1.5 miles (each way) to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area. Vault toilets, along with trash and recycling dumpsters, are available at the picnic area. Northside Drive will have one lane closed to vehicles so pedestrians can walk on the road between the viewing area and Yosemite Falls parking. Bring warm clothes and a headlamp or flashlight. Parking, stopping, or unloading passengers will be prohibited between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover. Vehicles displaying a disability placard will be allowed to drive to El Capitan Picnic Area and park in turnouts on the north side of Northside Drive.

Southside Drive will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited between El Capitan Crossover to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Pedestrians will also be prohibited from traveling on or adjacent to the road in this area. From Cathedral Beach Picnic Area to Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, the area between the road and the Merced River (including the river) will also be closed to all entry.

El Capitan Crossover (the road connecting Northside and Southside Drives near El Capitan) will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited.

No permit or reservation is required to view Horsetail Fall.

Map courtesy National Park Service

You’ll Have To Hike To See The Horsetail Firefall Display

Just like anything in this world that’s worth something, this year you’ll have to earn it. To see this display, you may have to hike up to 4 miles to see it. The closest parking will be at Yosemite Falls Parking Area near the Yosemite Valley Lodge and on Northside Drive along El Capitan Straight.

As anyone that’s visited the mountains before knows, even if it's warm mid-day, expect the temps to drop as the sun starts to set. So, be sure to come early, bring warm clothes, boots, and a headlamp or flashlight. You’ll be grateful.


Like what you see? Save any (or all) of the pins below to your travel planning/inspiration board(s) to give you any easy way to find your way back here!  Also check out our other itineraries as well as blog posts for more ideas and pins!

Alex Silgalis

Alex founded® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.


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