Among the many natural wonders of Yosemite National Park, Firefall is one of the most spectacular. Firefall flows like a molten lava waterfall, gleaming in stunning orange and red hues for approximately 10 to 15 minutes at sunset. The phenomenon of Firefall occurs when the sun hits Yosemite Valley at just the perfect angle, illuminating the upper portion of Horsetail Fall as it tumbles 1,570 feet down the east face of El Capitan. Check the Firefall peak viewing window in advance of your stay. It can light up nicely for six to seven days before the peak, or three to four days afterward. Book a stay at a Yosemite vacation rental soon so you won’t miss out on this breathtaking sight. Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about catching nature’s show at Yosemite National Park.
The Firefall Tradition
In 1872, the owner of the 80-room chalet-style Glacier Point Hotel began the Firefall tradition, perhaps by accident, when he built a huge bonfire on the edge of Glacier Point. As he kicked at the still-glowing embers of the bonfire to put it out, visitors 3,000 feet in the Merced Valley below spotted the embers tumbling down the mountainside like a massive waterfall of fire, inspiring awe. Soon, people from far and wide came to Glacier Point to view this delightful display. For nearly 100 years, the bonfire Firefall continued. In 1968, park officials declared that crowds gathered in the meadows to watch were causing too much damage to the area. Because the Firefall was man-made and not considered appropriate for a national park, the show was shut down. The hotel was damaged by snow during the winter of 1968-69, and when fire destroyed it in July 1969, it was still empty.
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Discovery of the Natural Firefall
There’s little documentation as to when this spectacle began, although the native Awahneechee tribes mostly likely experienced it. Even after white explorers heavily promoted the natural wonders upon their arrival in 1851, the natural Firefall was never mentioned – even by John Muir, who lived in and explored Yosemite in obsessive detail. It wasn’t until 1973 that National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell took the first known photograph of the Firefall. The area became very popular with landscape photographers and Yosemite visitors, but the Firefall became internationally acclaimed after the rise of digital photography and the internet. Dramatic images spread through chain emails, photography blogs, and photo-sharing sites, such as Instagram.
Factors That Affect the Firefall
If Horsetail Falls isn’t flowing, there is no Firefall. The waterfall feeds from the melting snowpack that results from warm temperatures. This lack of runoff explains why there isn’t a Firefall in October when the sun hits the falls at exactly the same angle as it does in February. The second factor is the need for a clear western sky at sunset, but many days in Yosemite start off cloudy and then clear up in time for viewing the Firefall. The Badger Pass Ski Area – roughly at the same altitude as where Horsetail Falls drains – lists snow conditions, so you can get weather alerts on a moment’s notice.
Find the Perfect Spot
Firefall is visible from many viewpoints throughout the park. If you’re there a few days early, you can explore the area and stake out a more isolated viewing area. The best viewpoint, especially for families with children, is the El Capitan picnic area on Northside Drive with places to eat and restrooms. This is where Galen Rowell first photographed Firefall. You can take a walk towards the river from Southside Drive, a mile past Cathedral Beach to the right of El Capitan. You’ve found the right place if you see other photographers and the waterfall is to your left. There are numerous general recreation areas and pullouts along the Merced River on State Highway 140 in the canyon. All spots are on a first-come, first-served basis. To ensure a good viewpoint, leave the warmth of your vacation rental and spend the morning and early afternoon deciding on your favorite spot, then claim it by mid- to late afternoon. Bring a chair, plenty of snacks, water, and warm clothing.
This year, Yosemite has instituted a permit system this year to prevent traffic jams in the park. Between February 12 and February 26, 50 permits will be issued a day on a first-come, first-served basis. You can find registration information here.
Tips for Fabulous Firefall Photographs
National Geographic Your Shot photographer Samgetta Dey has successfully photographed Firefall two consecutive times. She recommends that you bring a long lens; the top of Horsetail Fall is over 2,000 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley, and the light is low when Firefall occurs. A long lens lets you frame a tight crop of the Firefall. For more organic and approachable shots, frame the falls by trees and other natural elements, such as rock outcroppings.
She also recommends that you bring a sturdy tripod to stabilize the camera, reducing blur and ensuring sharp, clear pictures. You can also set up two side-by-side tripods and place your iPhone on one for time-lapse and your DSLR with a 70-200mm tele-zoom lens on the other for stills. There’s nothing more stimulating than watching Firefall through your own eyes, so consider using a remote shutter for photos, freeing you from photography and imprinting this amazing experience directly into your memory.
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