Chasing the ’firefall’
Photographing Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls phenomenon
Every year, for a two-week period in late February, throngs of photographers descend on Yosemite National Park in the Central Sierra Nevada for a chance to capture the fleeting phenomenon known recently as the “firefall” of Horsetail Falls.
Those familiar with Yosemite’s yesteryear may recall the Yosemite Firefall as the event where an actual bonfire was pushed over the edge of Glacier Point certain nights until the spectacle was permanently stopped in 1968.
It wasn’t until a few years later in 1973 that the first known color photograph of the Horsetail Falls firefall was captured by photographer Galen Rowell. It had been photographed by Ansel Adams back when it was known as El Capitan Falls, but in black and white the deep orange and reds created by the sunset could not be realized in his captures.
Gone are the days though, when photographers like Rowell could exceed the speed limits driving around Yosemite Valley in that pursuit to get that optimal vantage point.
The highly Instagrammable event has drawn so many people to Yosemite in recent years that the Park Service has now made efforts to limit attendance in the park and away from certain sensitive areas on dates when the natural firefall occurs.
Just as too many people gathered and destroyed Yosemite’s meadows trying to get a glimpse of the original Yosemite Firefall in the 1960s, crowds have begun to destroy the banks of the Merced River near El Capitan trying to get that optimal angle on Horsetail Falls. This has prompted the Parks Service to close entire areas popular for photographers, offering hefty fines for violators.
In efforts to keep firefall chasers out of those sensitive areas, the Parks Service has designated an entire lane of Northside Drive for pedestrian use only beneath El Capitan.
Clearly placed road signs direct firefall hunters to the lots in the Yosemite Falls parking area where the 1.5-mile paved pedestrian path toward the proper vantage points for viewing the phenomenon begins.
But there are a handful of unique events that must happen at once to make the firefall effect possible.
This year, dates to view the firefall fell between Feb. 11 and today, with Feb. 21 being the optimal day when the longest amount of firefall would be visible between 5:28 and 5:40 p.m.
There also has to be water flowing from Horsetail Falls, which flows directly from snowmelt solely atop El Capitan. Certain years there may not be enough snowmelt to feed the falls, other instances may be too cold providing water to freeze rather than flow.
In the perfect Horsetail Falls firefall chasing world, conditions would be clear, and the day and hopefully days prior sunny and warm to provide plenty of snowmelt for the falls, though the falls have happened during clearing snow storms.
I’d known about the Horsetail Falls phenomenon since my early days of photography and love of Yosemite, but the thought of crowds of people gathered to photograph something in one place never appealed to me, and that was pre-COVID.
This year knowing that the state Parks Service was purposely limiting people on the days of the firefall made me want to try to get reservations during those days hoping for a less populated park experience.
Though the Parks Service’s designated pathway and viewing area was crowded with people rushing to and from the falls’ viewing points, the rest of the park was pleasantly devoid of the crowds that have become synonymous with many Yosemite Valley experiences in recent years.
After getting clouded out a week prior, I was successful in my second attempt at photographing the firefall on Monday evening earlier this week.
I wanted to get away from the crowds during my second attempt, so I scoped out a spot near the 4 Mile Trail along the south side of the valley, where a clearing could be seen with the help of satellite imagery.
Sure enough, the location existed but a large pile of snow took the place of the rockfall seen in the satellite image. This played out to my advantage, though, when I was able to climb the snow and carve a shelf out where I could set up my camera gear and await the phenomenon to take place.
From my vantage point I could see west, out toward the Yosemite Valley with majestic views of the Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls with no one else in sight and only two other photographers in my general area.
One photog had seen me up in my vantage point and opted not to make the climb to above the tree line where I was, while the other photographer decided to climb past me to a vantage point slightly above me.
The time seemed to go by fast while awaiting sunset, watching the shadows as they are cast across El Capitan revealing the spot of sunshine that would soon focus its last light on Horsetail Falls.
And right on time, almost like a ray of light revealing some hidden secret in an Indiana Jones movie, the firefall phenomenon occurred.
Up and down the Yosemite Valley you could hear whoops and hollers from people all watching as the sun reached that magical spot in the sky where the unimpeded rays of light illuminated water from the ephemeral Horsetail Falls to make it look like flowing molten lava.
To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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