Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Yosemite's "Natural" Firefall

Firefalls were waterfalls once created with fire in Yosemite National Park. A large fire was started atop Glacier Point and red-hot embers were pushed off a shear granite wall in the evening. It was Yosemite’s version of fireworks. Park officials learned it was a fire hazard in the 1960s and the practice was stopped.

These days you can see and photograph a natural firefall, but the conditions have to be just right. The first ingredient you need, oddly enough, is sunlight. You can’t capture this effect throughout the year, and the setting sun is only in the right position during the last two weeks of February, when it can shine a golden spotlight down the center of Yosemite Valley. Wintertime can bring clouds and storms that block the sunlight, so timing is everything.
The next ingredient you need for the firefall is water. The source of water comes from Horsetail Falls, a small waterfall atop El Capitan. The water basin that drains into Horsetail Falls is around 30 acres. The elevation at the top is 7569 ft. It is cold up there in February. It gets cold enough to freeze any snow or rain into a solid piece of ice. California also has dry years when waterfalls barely run. No water means no waterfall, and no firefall. Like I said, timing is everything, and this can be a rare sight.

The best pictures I have of the firefall were taken during the El Nino. It rained nonstop during the El Nino of ’95. Horsetail Falls was raging on February 22nd. The water seemed to fling off the shear face of El Capitan. The waterfall was also affected by strong winds at the top of the mountain. The wind created a fine mist that was being blown across El Capitan. The winds also cleared the sky of rain clouds as sunset was approaching. In short, prime firefall conditions.
El Capitan was falling into shadow when the sun began to disappear. I saw the last golden light of day zero in on Horsetail Falls. El Capitan went dark as the firefall began to glow. It looked like a giant waterfall of fire in a twilight sky. The clouds of mist from the water spray were glowing. The show lasted for five minutes. I had taken over 100 pictures by the time it was over. It looked like an electric neon fire. I had to remind myself that the firefall I had seen was real.

I drove back to Yosemite every winter after that memorable day. It was five years before I saw the firefall again. It was a most unexpected and unusual sight. It was a very cold year. The valley floor was covered with a few feet of snow. Horsetail Falls was frozen solid the morning I arrived. The falls began to dribble water down the face of El Capitan in the warm, midday sun. There was a small amount of water running by late afternoon. The winds picked up as I positioned myself along the Merced River. The water from the falls whipped up into a vapor. Horsetail Falls looked like a cloud creating new shapes before my eyes. The cloud became electric at sunset and a new firefall was created.
The firefall is another one of nature’s little miracles in Yosemite National Park. I understand why Ansel Adams spent a lifetime taking pictures there. My favorite quote is by Adams: “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”

The best location to view the firefall is slightly east of El Capitan near the base of the mountain. You need to be east of Horsetail Falls as the sun sets in the West. Sunlight shining through the waterfall creates the most brilliant colors. There is a small meadow that provides an opening in the forest at a perfect angle. The spot is in between Yosemite Lodge and El Capitan. Photographers gather in a large herd at the end of February. The easiest way to find that meadow is to look for a lot of cars parked along Northside Drive for no apparent reason. You have gone too far if you get to the large parking area directly in front of El Capitan.

Firefall seen from across the valley along the Merced River.

All credit for this entire posting goes to Brad Perks who obviously has a deep love of Yosemite that matches my own. I found this entire narrative fascinating and exciting. I hope you did too. To see more pictures by Brad Perks, visit his website at

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