The Firefall at Yosemite National Park is truly a sight to behold. The natural phenomenon, first discovered back in 1897, consists of a waterfall that when illuminated by the setting sun at a certain time of year appears to be on fire. Named Horsetail Fall, the waterfall flows down the El Captain rock formation and when hit by the sun at the correct angle, provides a red and orange glow resembling embers.
The captivating Firefall is a must-see for anyone planning a trip to Yosemite, however, it’s vital you go at the right time of year and arrive in plenty of time as it’s a very popular phenomenon. Mid to late February is the time you can expect to see the Yosemite Firefall, occurring just before sunset for approximately 10-15 minutes (sometimes 30 if you’re lucky).
If seeing the Yosemite Firefall sounds like a trip for your bucket list, we’ve put together this guide to the ultimate Yosemite road trip and how to see the Firefall.
Yosemite Road Trip Itinerary
So, you’ve decided to visit Yosemite – where do you start? Depending on which airport you’ve landed in, we have a range of rental car centers across California including SFO, San Jose Airport and LAX, so you can pick up a vehicle and start your Yosemite road trip with ease.
Remember that you will be visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter months in order to see the Firefall. So, your trip needs to account for the lower temperatures and you should check for park closures in extreme weather conditions. With SIXT, you can choose from a range of optional add-ons for your rental car including snow chains and winter tires, if needed. When arriving in California, if you’re coming from the San Francisco or San Jose area in the West, Sacramento in the North, or Eastern Sierra in the East, you simply head towards Highway 120 to Yosemite National Park. If your starting point is the L.A. area you need State Route 41.
Start at Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Start by heading over to the south of Yosemite to see the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias – home to 500 giant sequoias (the biggest species of trees in the world). Following Highway 41 South, drive towards Wawona, following the signs to Mariposa Grove Road. This drive is a great opportunity to take in the mountain views and pass through the iconic Wawona Tunnel providing a panoramic view of the national park.
Be sure to check the park’s website for trail and road conditions before heading there.
Head to Tuolumne Meadows
Drive back to Highway 41 North, which will lead you through the Wawona Tunnel and into Yosemite Valley. Continue to El Portal and the Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120 West), you will drive through Yosemite Valley (don’t worry we come back here, later). Drive on Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows, this scenic journey will ensure you pass through breathtaking high-country scenery, including Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake.
Once you’re at Tuolumne Meadows, you will see a different perspective of Yosemite National Park, allowing you to take in even more views. From rock climbing and hiking trails to meadows and rivers for you to photograph and observe.
Drive to Yosemite Village
Driving back the way you came, you can visit Yosemite Village to explore the visitor center, Ansel Adams Gallery, and the Yosemite Museum. Learn all about the cultural and natural history of Yosemite, indulge in a range of activities from art classes to rafting, or explore the shopping and dining options in the area.
Yosemite Village is in Yosemite Valley, which leads us nicely to the grand finale of the Yosemite Firefall road trip.
Finish in Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley is accessible year-round, nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains this glacial valley offers breathtaking views and a wealth of iconic landmarks to explore. Yosemite Valley is home to cycle routes, ample walking trails, and guided horseback tours. West of Yosemite Valley is Yosemite Falls and you guessed it – the famous Firefall.
Finishing your road trip in Yosemite Valley and viewing the Yosemite Firefall is a great way to end your Yosemite driving adventure. Yosemite has a range of camping spots for you to make your road trip as long as you wish, with most visitors usually taking 2-4 days to explore all the national park has to offer.
How to get to Yosemite Firefall in your car
To see the Yosemite Firefall in all its glory, there are a few things you must know to secure your spot, particularly as the spectacle grows in demand each year. Depending on when you arrive, parking is usually directed to the Yosemite Falls site, but if this is full, visitors can park at Yosemite Village or Curry Village and take the free shuttle to get to the viewing platform.
In recent years, tourists are required to reserve a spot to see the Firefall. Find the latest Yosemite information and updates on the National Park Service website. Driving through Yosemite National Park has never been easier thanks to our premium fleet of rental cars at SIXT. From sturdy SUVs to compact sedans perfect for maneuvering around windy mountain roads, you are planning to see the Yosemite Firefall. We also offer optional add-ons from winter tires and snow chains to GPS navigation and SIXT Connect for in-car Wi-Fi.