Each February, for a couple days, when the conditions are right, the setting sun catches Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall on fire. This seasonal waterfall on the east side of El Capitan is quite meek, flowing only in winter and early spring, if at all; but what it lacks in robustness it more than makes up for in special effects. When the skies are clear and the angles are right, Horsetail becomes a sunset-trapping prism, causing an effect that briefly turns the minor waterfall into a mighty lava flow, and photographers have flocked for years to document the fleeting golden glow. The optical phenomenon is called the “firefall,” a name derived from Yosemite’s man-made “Firefall,” a long-running annual event, now wisely retired, in which actual burning embers were thrown off Glacier Point as a nightly diversion for summertime guests. Check out the fiery falls below.
If you want to capture the glow you’ll need to be lucky and quick. If nature cooperates and the firefall effect occurs, it will last no more than two minutes. Image by Mind Blowing Photography
Not all angles permit viewing of the phenomenon. The effect is best seen from the picnic area east of El Capitan on the north road. Image by WikiCommons
The firefall effect usually occurs during the last two weeks of February. Image by Jeff Krause
Photographer Galen Rowell was the first to capture a color image of Horsetail Fall aflame in 1973.
Image by Wide Angle Wandering
Ansel Adams photographed Horsetail Fall, but as he worked in black and white it’s unclear whether he ever captured the firefall effect. Image by Dale Carlson
At 1,500 feet, Horsetail Fall is the longest waterfall in Yosemite. Image by Dale Carlson
As the angle of the sun changes, so does the quality of light. Horsetail Fall can appear gold one day, or moment, and deep red the next. Image by Dale Carlson
All the conditions were right when cloud cover caused a near miss for this firefall seeking photographer.
Image by Dale Carlson
Above is a long-exposure photograph of the man-made “Firefall” event at Yosemite. Ended in 1968, the nightly dumping of embers off Glacier Point was a summertime tradition for 96 years. Image by WikiCommons