If you're visiting Yosemite National Park in February hoping to see the amazing natural phenomenon known as "Firefall," you might want to have a Plan B in mind. Horsetail Fall's golden sunset illumination—when the setting sun is at the proper angle to seemingly paint the waterfall a fiery orange—happens only during the last two weeks of February, and has attracted increasingly large crowds in recent years. This year, the National Park Service has implemented major restrictions for driving, parking, stopping, unloading passengers, and even walking in Yosemite Valley.
According to the park website, the closures are intended to curb ecological damage to the Merced River's banks. As an example, on one day during the 2019 Firefall, “over 2,000 visitors viewing Horsetail Fall gathered in areas mostly lacking adequate parking and other facilities,” according to the National Park Service site. “Visitors spilled onto riverbanks, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation. As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, trampling sensitive vegetation and exposing themselves to unsafe conditions.”
So, from noon to 7 p.m. every day between February 13 and 27, Southside Drive will be closed to all activities except driving without stopping. The Merced River, Sentinel Beach, Cathedral Beach, and Swinging Bridge picnic areas will be closed.
The Park Service has designated El Capitan Picnic Area as the official Firefall viewing area, but you can't park there unless you have an ADA placard or license plate. For everyone else, the closest parking is at Yosemite Falls or Yosemite Lodge, more than a mile away. Visitors can walk alongside Northside Drive (for drivers, there's no stopping, parking, or unloading permitted).
To photograph Firefall, you'll need to arrive early in the day to stake out your tripod position, then wait—and try to keep warm—until the setting winter sun works its magic. Even if you snag a coveted shooting spot, you might not get your shot. Afternoon clouds or a lack of water in the falls will cancel the light show.
Fortunately, Yosemite offers lots of other great activities in February, so consider these alternate attractions:
Hike to one of the park's magnificent sequoia groves
The Tuolumne Grove is a one-mile walk from the trailhead near Crane Flat, and the Merced Grove trailhead is a few miles farther west on Highway 120.
Take a few spins around the Curry Village ice-skating rink
Ride the free Valley shuttle to Curry Village for this winter-seasom classic. Once you've mastered your triple axel, take a seat by the fire pit and warm up with a mug of hot chocolate.
Stop by the Ansel Adams Gallery
See an extensive collection of the master photographer's works or sign up for a two- or four-hour photography class, held most afternoons.
Dine at the Ahwahnee Hotel
Have lunch or the ledendary Sunday brunch in the hotel’s magnificent dining room. Or stop by the hotel's concierge desk for the free Ahwahnee Hotel Tour (daily at 2p.m.)
Play in the snow at Badger Pass Ski Area
Hop on the shuttle bus (or drive your own car) to the national park’s ski and snowboard area. Carve a few turns on the Badger Pass ski hill, then grab a veggie burger and fries to nosh on the resort's sundeck. If you're a cross-country skier, take your pick from 25 miles of groomed track.
Rent a pair of snowshoes
While at Badger Pass, you can shuffle along snow-covered trails, or show up at Badger Pass Ranger Station for a free ranger-led snowshoe walk (daily at 10 a.m.).