By Kimberly Matarazzo, Sierra Nevada Guide
Yosemite’s “firefall” is a brief period every year when Horsetail Fall is backlit by the sun causing it to glow bright orange.
Horsetail Fall is situated on the eastern side of El Capitan, one of Yosemite’s famous granite cliffs. It is a seasonal waterfall that is approximately 1,570 feet (480 meters) tall. It typically flows during winter and early spring when snowmelt feeds it. The water cascades down the cliffs, resembling a beautiful curtain of falling water.
The Firefall Phenomenon
The Firefall occurs for a brief period in late February when specific conditions combine to create a mesmerizing spectacle. If the conditions are just right, the setting sun illuminates the waterfall, causing it to glow vividly, resembling molten lava or a flowing firefall against the dark granite backdrop.
History of Yosemite’s Firefall – An artificial spectacle
The original firefall began sometime around 1872 before Yosemite was designated as a national park. James McCauley, the owner of the Mountain House hotel on top of Glacier Point, reportedly invented the tradition as part of a Fourth of July show he put on for guests. McCauley built a bonfire at the edge of the cliff; after nightfall, he would push it over the edge, leading to a torrent of embers and sparks that tumbled some 1,400 feet down to a rocky ledge below. The spectacular became so popular that McCauley began charging $1.50 a head for visitors to watch. The firefalls stopped in 1897, when McCauley lost the hotel.
The spectacle returned in the 20th century when David Curry, the proprietor of Camp Curry, revived it. Under Curry’s direction, the firefall became a bona-fide ritual, with a “fire master” on top of Glacier Point shouting directions back and forth with Curry before pushing a bonfire made of red fir bark (chosen because it created the best embers) off the edge of the cliff at 9 p.m. every night.
In 1968, the then-head of the National Park Service, George Herzog, told Curry’s heirs that he was putting a stop to the event. In a letter that year, he said that the firefall and similar ‘vaudeville’ entertainment at Camp Curry was inappropriate for a national park and proposed expanding the park’s interpretive programming, including ranger-led walks.
A natural phenomenon is discovered
In 1973 when Galen Rowell, a renowned nature photographer, captured an image of the fall turning fiery orange at sunset. This photograph, titled “Last light on Horsetail Fall,” brought significant attention to this unique natural phenomenon which is now the modern day “Yosemite Firefall.”
“Last Light on Horsetail Fall” by Galen Rowen
Factors for the Firefall Effect
Several factors contribute to the Firefall effect. Firstly, the waterfall needs to have enough water flow to ensure visibility. Secondly, the sky should be clear, as sunlight passing through a clean sky produces the optimal lighting conditions. Lastly, the angle of the setting sun aligns perfectly with the waterfall, creating the glowing effect.
Viewing the Firefall
To witness the Firefall, visitors should be present during the last two weeks of February when the setting sun aligns with the waterfall and the sky is clear. The best views can be found from specific vantage points like the El Capitan picnic area. Also, the viewing area near Yosemite Valley Lodge.
The waterfall’s annual ‘firefall’ continues to draw thousands of visitors and photographers each year, eager to witness and capture the breathtaking sight. The area can become crowded so it’s advisable to plan your visit accordingly. Check the park website for last-minute information. The park recently announced a return of the reservation system, meaning you must purchase a ticket to enter the park (this does not include the park entrance fee). Tickets are required for a February visit and can be purchased at recreation.gov.
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