For a couple of weeks each February, the Horsetail Falls in Yosemite
National Park appears to be set ablaze by the setting sun, a fleeting evening
spectacle known as the “firefall.” Though renowned photographer Ansel
Adams captured the gleaming waterfall in 1940, the “firefall” didn’t become
widely known until National Geographic photographer Galen
Rowell documented it in 1973. The geometry of the Yosemite Valley
confines the firefall to mid-February, typically in the 15 minutes before sunset
from February 16 to February 23. But weather plays a crucial role in whether the
firefall pours down El Capitan’s eastern side: 1) it needs enough snowpack
and enough snowmelt to feed the waterfall to make the Horsetail Fall flowing; 2)
the western sky must be clear at sunset so the sun's ray can light up the
Getting there ...
We started our journey at ~10:30AM (after Woanyu's Zumba class) and had a 4+
hours smooth drive to Yosemite (although we struggled a little to find a
restroom in Oakdale because the McDonald's there closed their lobby and restroom
for visitors/customers...). Due to current health
guidelines, reservations are required to drive into Yosemite National Park.
With the high popularity of the firefall event (thanks to the social media),
additional restrictions are in effect during mid- to late February (February 12
through 24 in 2021) daily from noon to 7 pm. This is our 2nd time to try
to catch the firefall as our 1st attempt in
2017 did not have a good weather.
The First Day ...
- Tunnel View
We made our first stop at the classic Tunnel View. It was a nice clear
day to visit this iconic vista point.
- Yosemite Valley
Before checked in to the lodge in Yosemite, we took a
short walk around the Cook's Meadow in the Valley where the ground was still
covered by snow from the last few days. Although it was a busy weekend
(due to the firefall event), it was relative quiet and not crowded (compared
to other popular places) in this open valley floor.
- Sunset at Tunnel View
Since we arrived at the park in the late
afternoon, we decided not to go to see the firefall today (as we may not be
able to find a good location); instead we went back to Tunnel View again for
the sunset. The cloud hovering above the valley made it a beautiful
way to conclude the day.
The Second Day ...
- Early morning in Yosemite Valley
I drove to the Valley View for the
sunrise. I arrived ~45 minutes before sunrise time, however, I found
the parking was already full with many cars stuck there. I decided to
go for my backup plan: Tunnel View again. When I got to the
Tunnel View, there were already a crowd of people with tripods lining up
along the view point. Without any cloud in the clear sky, it was not a
very dramatic sunrise morning...
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped by the Swinging
Bridge where you can get a perfect reflection of the Yosemite Falls in the calm
Merced River .
- Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake is a seasonal lake that it is fullest in
spring and early summer, and dries up in the late summer (and is often
referred as Mirror Meadow in those months). When water is
calm, the lake offers beautiful reflections of surrounding cliffs. We were
surprised that there were so few people on this trail (one of the most
popular trails in summer) and we could have the perfect mirrored scene to
- Yosemite Valley
After a short break, we started to prepare our visit
to the firefall. Due to the popularity of the event,
restrictions are in effect during mid-
to late February each year (February 12 through 24 in 2021) daily from noon
to 7 pm. We drove to the Camp 4 parking lot at ~ 11:30AM, and
found it was almost full and we were lucky to get one of the last (and best)
spots. Since we still had plenty of time, we decided to walk across
the valley to the Swinging Bridge to enjoy the majestic winter landscape.
- Horsetail Fall (Firefall)
After a quick picnic in the parking lot, we started our 1.5-mile
(one-way) walk to El Capitan picnic area for firefall viewing.
Northside Drive had one lane closed to vehicles so pedestrians could walk
safely on the road between the viewing area and Yosemite Falls parking. We
picked a spot on the roadside with a good view before reaching the El
Capitan picnic area, and began our 4-hour wait for sunset. After we
set up our chairs and settled down to relax, Woanyu found she left the
portable battery charger in the car and she decided to walk back to the
parking lot to get the battery (an additional 1-hour 3-mile round-trip
The firefall started at ~ 5:28PM and last for about 15 minutes.
Although some people claimed it was not as good as yesterday (as it was too
clear today to make it as red as possible), it was still a surreal nature
phenomenon worth the wait.
There was a huge crowd when we all walked back to the
parking area after the firefall is over. If we come back again for the
firefall, we will probably avoid this popular view area and try to find some
other more unique vintage viewpoint with less crowd...
The Third Day ...
- Early morning in the Valley
- Lower Yosemite Fall
Although the Lower Yosemite Fall is one of the
most popular and accessible attractions and we have been to Yosemite so many
times (this is my 12th visit to Yosemite), our last time to the Lower
Yosemite Fall was more than 20 years ago. The short loop trail rewards
with spectacular views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. The
good thing to walk to the base of the Lower Fall in winter is you will not
- Valley View
On the way to exit the valley, we stopped by the classic
Valley View. Although it was close to mid-day with harsh daylight, it
was still one of the best views of the Yosemite Valley.
- Tuolumne Grove
Tuolumne Grove on the Tioga Road is one of the few
groves with giant sequoia trees in Yosemite. When snow covers the
ground in winter the trail to the Tuolumne Grove turns into delightful
cross-country and snowshoe tracks. We bought new pairs of snowshoes
before the trip so we could enjoy some winter sport in this trip. It
was about 1.5-mile (one-way) with ~ 500 feet descending into the grove where
there are around a dozen of mature giant sequoia and a dead tunnel tree.
It was not too bad to climb back 500 feet even with our snowshoes as the
snow on the trail was already packed solid enough.
Going Home ...
After returning back to the trailhead at the Tuolumne Grove and having a
quick lunch in the car, we were ready to head back home. It was
another short trip for us during this pandemic period, and we were able to
continue to enjoy the nature safely. We finally got the chance to witness
the famous Horsetail Fall turn into a firefall during the magic 15 minutes
sunset time. It was a good reason to come back to visit Yosemite again!
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