It’s always a good time to visit Yosemite, but the last half of February is an especially popular time to travel to this 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. 19 and 25, 2024. In order for the firefall to take place, the angle of the light at sunset has to strike perfectly, which only happens during that window in February.
The weather must be very clear, and plenty of water needs to flow over the rocks. This process can be hindered if it is an especially 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 in 2024, like most weather-dependent phenomena. However, this time frame is based on the NPS’ best guess.
Reservations required for Yosemite
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, on the following dates: Feb. 10-11, Feb. 17-19 and Feb. 24-25.
Reservations are also required at Wawona, Camp 4 and Hodgdon Meadow campgrounds between Feb. 9 and 25 since these campgrounds normally operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations can be made online.
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When can you make a reservation?
Vehicle reservations for Yosemite during the affected dates in February will open on Dec. 1 at 11 a.m. EST/8 a.m. PST. NPS will release half of the reservation slots for each of the February dates.
The remaining half of the reservation slots will open at 8 a.m. PST two days in advance. (So, a Feb. 10 reservation would open the morning of Feb. 8, and so forth). Reservations will be available at Recreation.gov.
Wawona, Camp 4 and Hodgdon Meadow campground reservations will open at 10 a.m. EST/7 a.m. PST on Dec. 15. Two-night minimum stays are required.
Annual and lifetime passholders will still need to make a reservation.
Vehicle passes are good for seven days and require a $35 entrance fee for standard vehicles.
Overnight guests with camping reservations do not need to make a vehicle reservation.
Visiting Yosemite for firefall
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.
The NPS says that from Yosemite Village and Yosemite Falls parking/Yosemite Valley Lodge, visitors 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 of the stunning national parks around the country. Whether you’re planning to visit Yosemite this winter or once it warms up next spring, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to hotels near national parks you can book with points.