Hundreds of photographers gather in Yosemite Valley each year for the natural firefall at Horsetail Fall. Everyone there has their fingers crossed for the perfect conditions. When it happens, the sunlight streams through the thin sliver of a waterfall, turning it molten orange. Shutters fire as people gasp, and cheer and hug their friends and neighbors.
Have you seen the pictures? When the conditions are just right, there is no need to turn up the saturation in the editing process. It really is just that dramatic and unbelievable.
Here is what you need to know about this otherwise humble waterfall, and how to catch it in full internet sensation mode.
The Glacier Point firefall was created from an actual fire falling from the edge of Glacier Point as a tourist attraction. Photo courtesy: National Park Service
The reason this is called “the firefall” and not the molten waterfall or something else stems from an interesting history of amazing visual displays in Yosemite Valley.
Back in 1872, the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel created a spectacle by pushing an actual bonfire off the edge of the cliff at Glacier Point. The cascade of red hot embers falling down the cliff looked like a glowing waterfall of light to onlookers below. Although the practice started and stopped several times over the years, by the mid-1900s thousands of people were coming to Yosemite to literally watch the fire fall.
This was the original Yosemite Firefall.
Eventually, in January of 1968 the director of the National Park Service, George Hartzog, stopped this practice. This man-made event was obviously inconsistent with the park mission to protect the park’s natural wonders. The huge number of spectators were trampling the meadows, and the concessionaires were having to go further and further afield to find enough of their preferred red fir bark to build the fires. Not to mention the fire hazard it created.
Just 5 years after the Yosemite Firefall ended in 1973, a talented adventure photographer named Galen Rowell accidentally stumbled across a new firefall-like phenomenon. As he was driving out of the valley on Southside Drive, he spotted a small waterfall off the shoulder of El Capitan that looked molten in the setting sun. He leaped out of his car and ran to the photograph – the first widely-circulated color picture of the natural firefall in Yosemite National Park.
With the image of the falling bonfire at Glacier Point a recent memory, of course the new phenomenon has been dubbed the natural Yosemite firefall.
A single cloud can block the sun and destroy the effect, but cloudy or windy days can also result in the most interesting photos. Photo: Charles Phillips
Most of the year, Horsetail Fall is one of Yosemite’s less-remarkable waterfalls. Although it drops an impressive 2,130 feet (650 m), the small stream at the top of El Capitan doesn’t have the massive volume of some of the more well-known waterfalls like Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil Fall. Fed exclusively through snowmelt and run-off, it dries up in the summer months and disappears entirely.
However, for a few weeks in February, everything comes together to make this humble waterfall an international celebrity. There are several factors that go into creating this magnificent spectacle.
The sun comes into position in mid-to-late February each year, so if you’re in the right place, that’s when the magic will happen. More on this in a bit. Technically, the sun is also in the right location each October, but the firefall effect usually isn’t seen then. More on this later as well.
The second requirement for the firefall effect is having enough water in Horsetail Fall. This means a few different things need to happen. One, there has to be some snow on the ground to provide the water for the waterfall. Second, it needs to be warm enough during the day that the sun melts that snow and sends it running over the edge of the fall. If it is exceptionally cold, the cliff surrounding the waterfall will still light up, and the trickle of water coming over the edge will reflect the setting sun, but you won’t see the stream of molten fire unless there is more water.
The ephemeral nature of Horsetail Fall explains why the October firefall event is rarely seen. October is usually relatively dry. Though it does storm, the occasional rain shower or snowstorm usually doesn’t provide adequate water in the fall. However, on an exceptionally wet year, local photographers will rush out after a clearing rain shower and capture great images.
With the sun in the right place, and enough water in Horsetail Fall to catch the sun, the firefall can still fail to materialize if cloud cover blocks the sun during the critical minutes of the evening. For that reason, a cloudy forecast will keep many people away. However, if that cloudy forecast clears just enough to let the right beam of sunlight through, you can end up with a one-of-a-kind image with the firefall surrounded by brilliant pink clouds.
As the sun sets, Horsetail Fall and the wall behind it are hit by the setting sun.
During the latter half of February, the magical moment itself occurs around 5 to 15 minutes before sunset. However, you should plan to invest several hours to get to the right place in time. The days when Galen Rowell could spot the firefall effect from his car, find a convenient pull-out and set up for an image are long gone.
People are traveling from all over the country, and that means that they are finding their spot and setting up their tripods earlier and earlier in the day in order to get just the angle they want. In order to navigate the parking situation and have enough time to walk out to a place where you can see the firefall, plan to arrive in the valley in the late morning or early afternoon.
Spend the time relaxing and enjoying the already-majestic Yosemite scenery, and get to know the people around you.
There are two classic locations to view the natural Yosemite firefall on the valley floor. However, with the thousands of people who arrive each year hoping to see Horsetail Fall glowing, the logistics that surround getting to one of the classic viewing areas are becoming more complex.
The El Capitan Picnic Area is one of the most popular destinations for Yosemite firefall viewers and is closest to the location where Galen Rowell took that first now-legendary photograph. It’s also one of the closest viewing spots, so if you don’t have a long telephoto lens, this will probably be your best bet.
There is a pair of small pullouts (one on either side of the road) along Southside Drive, just before you get to the Four Mile Trailhead, with a fragile use trail that leads down to the river where you can get a clear view of the firefall. This location is a little further away from the waterfall, so you might want to have a larger telephoto lens from this spot.
Note: Following significant impact to the riverbank, there may be limits on viewing the natural firefall from this location in 2020. Visit the NPS website for updates.
For a few minutes, when the angle is just right, Horsetail Fall flows bright against the dark walls of the cliff behind.
As the firefall first gained notoriety among Yosemite National Park-lovers, the pull-outs started spilling over with cars poking ever so slightly out into the roadway. Then, people started abandoning their cars right in the middle of the street and blocking traffic in order to be closer to the viewing areas. Park roads are often icy in February, and this creates a huge safety issue. At that point, the National Park Service (NPS) had to step in.
For the last few years, NPS has been experimenting with different ways to manage traffic.
In 2018, NPS issued permits and required parking reservations. In 2019, they switched tactics and eliminated the permit system, but closed many of the small parking lots and pull-offs close to the viewing areas to keep people from trying to ‘squeeze in’. The larger parking areas accommodate the large numbers of vehicles more easily, and then one lane of the road is closed to cars so people can walk to the viewing areas out of the main flow of traffic.
The closest parking to Horsetail Fall was the Yosemite Falls Parking Area near Yosemite Valley Lodge, though people with a disability placard were allowed to park at the El Capitan Picnic Area.
Keep an eye out to find out what refinements to this process might be in place for the upcoming year. And keep in mind – with so much attention the events are likely to be heavily patrolled. Stay safe and know and follow the rules.
Given that we should anticipate a reasonably long walk from the parking to the viewing areas again this year, and that you should plan to spend at least a few hours outdoors in February, here are a few things you should consider bringing with you.
Learn more about Horsetail Fall and the natural Yosemite Firefall in this Yosemite Nature Notes video:
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