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Chasing the ’firefall’

Photographing Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls phenomenon

The last light of the setting sun illuminates Horsetail Falls as it flows off El Capitan and into the Yosemite Valley earlier this week during a phenomenon dubbed the “firefall.“ Witnessing the event is becoming increasingly harder due to its popularity and the state Parks Service’s efforts to keep people out of sensitive areas.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.



This year the Parks Service limited the amount of people allowed into Yosemite during the two-week period in February when the “firefall” occurs, and may do so in the future. One lane of Northside Drive near El Capitan was designated for pedestrian use to view Horsetail Falls which helped the habitat, but created an area nearly impossible to comply with social distancing.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.



The last sunlight on Horsetail Falls is the most vibrant as the light from the falling water is refracted and appears as oozing lava as the rest of the Yosemite Valley falls into deep shadow.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

The Horsetail Falls information hub sits outside of Best’s Studio and the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Though the gallery is currently closed, people can still get all the information needed to view the firefall, including park closures and what days and times are best for trying to view the firefall.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

Throngs of people begin to crowd the few good meadows available for viewing the Horsetail Falls off Northside Drive near El Capitan during a day when clouds did not allow for the firefall effect to take place.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

A section of older trail can be seen along the south side of the Yosemite Valley near the 4 Mile Trail.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

By 3:45 p.m. the sun’s rays have cast a large shadow over the face of El Capitan. The setting sun shines through the canyons to the west, and continues to focus the available light increasingly toward Horsetail Falls, which is almost invisible to the naked eye as it appears as merely a mist at times.
Photo: Elias Funez
By 5:05 p.m. the light begins to focus on the edge of El Capitan, where Horsetail Falls gently flows into the Yosemite Valley.
Photo: Elias Funez
By 5:29 p.m. Monday Horsetail Falls had enough snowmelt from the top of El Capitan to refract the light from the sun and create the “firefall“ effect, while the rest of Yosemite Valley is draped in shadow before it, too, enters the shade and becomes nearly invisible again.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

A photograph showing the photographer’s setup, including another photographer choosing a similar vantage point.
Photo: Elias Funez

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.

A panoramic photo of Horsetail Falls utilizes three images stitched together in Photoshop. Getting certain angles on the falls can increase the dramatic effect of the scene for the photographer.
Photo: Elias Funez

To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez email efunez@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.


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