If You Want to Visit Yosemite National Park for Its Most Stunning Event, You'll Need a Reservation
Officials are trying to control large crowds brought in by the annual spectacle.
Yosemite National Park is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts on any given day of the year. The iconic natural site draws in visitors from around the world looking to take in the natural beauty of its larger-than-life forests, unique wildlife, and jaw-dropping rock formations. But every so often, Mother Nature likes to put on a show that brings in crowds so large that officials have no choice but to limit their size. And if you're planning to visit Yosemite for its most stunning event of the year, you're going to need a reservation to take part. Read on to see which dates will require a little planning ahead for guests.
The U.S. Park Service has been experimenting with different ways to control overcrowding.
With 423 sites, the U.S. National Park System provides plenty of opportunities to step out into well-preserved pieces of nature and experience them up close. But even the great outdoors can't accommodate too many visitors descending upon it at the same time. According to data from the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), 44 of the most popular parks broke their annual attendance records in 2021—including six sites that had just broken them the previous year. It also showed that those numbers weren't spread out evenly, with just 25 of the parks receiving more than half of the system's 297.1 million guests recorded last year.
But park officials haven't just stood by in the face of swelling visitor numbers. Many popular sites have begun implementing reservation systems to help thin out crowds and ease the congestion they cause. The rules require guests to book in advance if they want to drive or hike specific sites during peak seasons, which typically span from May through September or October at places such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park, Arches National Park, Acadia National Park, and Yosemite, USA Today reported.
However, even though officials claimed the new systems were successful in cutting down on traffic and overcrowding, Yosemite officials announced on Nov. 15 that it wouldn't be reinstituting reservation rules for the park next year. They explained that the temporary system had only been in place while "numerous key visitor attractions were closed for critical infrastructure repairs" and that a new program was in the works that could replace it.
"Yosemite has been grappling with congestion—even gridlock—for decades," officials wrote. "We want to build from the lessons learned from the last three summers of managed access. Look for an announcement in December, when we'll start seeking your help to design an approach that provides a great visitor experience while protecting Yosemite's natural and cultural resources." But despite the changes, you'll still need to book ahead to see one of the site's most iconic spectacles.
Guests will have to book a reservation to view the most stunning event of the year at Yosemite.
Each February, visitors mark their calendars to make their way to Yosemite to catch a glimpse of the annual "firefall." The dazzling phenomenon occurs during sunset at the park's Horsetail Fall, which drops down the face of the iconic El Capitan vertical rock formation. In the right conditions, the lighting causes the cascading water to turn brilliant orange, making it appear to glow like flowing magma in a spectacle that has become a must-see for travelers—especially for photographers looking to immortalize the moment on film.
But if you're planning on crossing this spectacular event off your bucket list, you'll need to make some preparations in advance. On Dec. 9, park officials announced that they would require reservations to drive into Yosemite during select "firefall" dates to help cut down on overcrowding throughout the site.
"This unique lighting effect happens only on evenings with a clear sky when the waterfall is flowing and when the sun is at the right angle in mid-to-late February," NPS officials wrote in a public notice. "This event attracts many visitors to a small area, causing traffic congestion, parking issues, safety concerns, and impacts to natural and cultural resources."
The agency's notice specifies that reservations will be required for all visitors during the weekends of Feb. 10 through 12, Feb. 17 to 19, and Feb. 24 through 26, 2023—even if they aren't planning on visiting Horsetail Fall.
Growing crowds have caused some serious problems in the past.
The move marks the second year in a row that the crowd control measures have been in place, The Los Angeles Times reports. Officials say that while the natural event was once little known, breakthrough posts on social media have turned "firefall" into an increasingly overcrowded experience. The park began considering restrictions after seasons like 2019 when 2,433 visitors descended upon the site in areas without sufficient parking space and caused extensive damage.
"As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, trampling sensitive vegetation and exposing themselves to unsafe conditions," the park wrote on its website. "Some undeveloped areas became littered with trash, and the lack of restrooms resulted in unsanitary conditions."
Here's how you can secure your entrance to Yosemite to view the spectacular event.
If you're planning on catching "firefall" this year, it's not too late to get the reservations needed for entrance into Yosemite. The NPS says it will open up 50 percent of all slots for the coveted weekend on Jan. 13 at 8 a.m. PST for $2 apiece on its booking website, Recreation.gov. The remaining reservations will be released two days before their valid entry date for the rest of the month. Just make sure you're ready to go: NPS warns that "reservations are taken almost immediately" and that you should create an account ahead of time to ensure you don't miss out.
But even if you're fortunate enough to score one of the coveted spots, it's still not guaranteed you'll get to see the dazzling natural spectacle. Conditions such as clouds or snow can block the light needed to create the effect, local San Francisco news website SFist reports. If you're looking for the best chances of catching a glimpse, it's best to show up at least 15 minutes before sunset, which will fall between 5:30 and 6 p.m. at the end of February.