Firefalls were waterfalls once created with fire in Yosemite National Park.
A large fire was started atop Glacier Point and red-hot embers were pushed off
a shear granite wall in the evening. It was Yosemite's version of fireworks.
Park officials learned it was a fire hazard in the 1960s and the practice was
These days you can see and photograph a natural firefall, but the conditions
have to be just right. The first ingredient you need, oddly enough, is sunlight.
You can't capture this effect throughout the year, and the setting sun
is only in the right position during the last two weeks of February, when it
can shine a golden spotlight down the center of Yosemite Valley. Wintertime
can bring clouds and storms that block the sunlight, so timing is everything.
Firefall during the El Nino of 1995 from the meadow near El Capitan.
All Photos © 2006, Brad Perks, All Rights Reserved
The next ingredient you need for the firefall is water. The source of water
comes from Horsetail Falls, a small waterfall atop El Capitan. The water basin
that drains into Horsetail Falls is around 30 acres. The elevation at the top
is 7569 ft. It is cold up there in February. It gets cold enough to freeze any
snow or rain into a solid piece of ice. California also has dry years when waterfalls
barely run. No water means no waterfall, and no firefall. Like I said, timing
is everything, and this can be a rare sight.
The best pictures I have of the firefall were taken during the El Nino. It rained
nonstop during the El Nino of '95. Horsetail Falls was raging on February
22nd. The water seemed to fling off the shear face of El Capitan. The waterfall
was also affected by strong winds at the top of the mountain. The wind created
a fine mist that was being blown across El Capitan. The winds also cleared the
sky of rain clouds as sunset was approaching. In short, prime firefall conditions.
Firefall during windy conditions creating a glowing mist.
El Capitan was falling into shadow when the sun began to disappear. I saw
the last golden light of day zero in on Horsetail Falls. El Capitan went dark
as the firefall began to glow. It looked like a giant waterfall of fire in a
twilight sky. The clouds of mist from the water spray were glowing. The show
lasted for five minutes. I had taken over 100 pictures by the time it was over.
It looked like an electric neon fire. I had to remind myself that the firefall
I had seen was real.
I drove back to Yosemite every winter after that memorable day. It was five
years before I saw the firefall again. It was a most unexpected and unusual
sight. It was a very cold year. The valley floor was covered with a few feet
of snow. Horsetail Falls was frozen solid the morning I arrived. The falls began
to dribble water down the face of El Capitan in the warm, midday sun. There
was a small amount of water running by late afternoon. The winds picked up as
I positioned myself along the Merced River. The water from the falls whipped
up into a vapor. Horsetail Falls looked like a cloud creating new shapes before
my eyes. The cloud became electric at sunset and a new firefall was created.
Close-up detail of glowing firefall and granite face of El Capitan.
The firefall is another one of nature's little miracles in Yosemite
National Park. I understand why Ansel Adams spent a lifetime taking pictures
there. My favorite quote is by Adams: "Sometimes I arrive just when God's
ready to have someone click the shutter."
The best location to view the firefall is slightly east of El Capitan near the
base of the mountain. You need to be east of Horsetail Falls as the sun sets
in the West. Sunlight shining through the waterfall creates the most brilliant
colors. There is a small meadow that provides an opening in the forest at a
perfect angle. The spot is in between Yosemite Lodge and El Capitan. Photographers
gather in a large herd at the end of February. The easiest way to find that
meadow is to look for a lot of cars parked along Northside Drive for no apparent
reason. You have gone too far if you get to the large parking area directly
in front of El Capitan.
Firefall seen from across the valley along the Merced River.
To see more pictures by Brad Perks, visit his website at http://pcimagenetwork.com.