YOSEMITE – People were gathered around this time last year, waiting, talking and laughing – then the crowd began to settle down.
We were amateurs among professionals, but no one seemed to mind, as a hush fell on the crowd looking out at Horsetail Fall.
Colors began to change on the cliffs, as light played with water, and in the setting sun, the mountain blazed with a fiery red and orange mirage: Firefall…..
Every year in February, when conditions are right, Yosemite’s Firefall amazes and delights hundreds of people who visit the Park to view and photograph the spectacular natural show. It happens when there’s enough water in Horsetail fall to match the light of the particular angle of the setting sun.
Daytime conditions must be warm enough to melt ice, and the night skies must be clear to let the light through to the water. Timing depends on the whims of nature.
What begins roughly the second week of February peaks later in the month, and as the incredible display comes to a crescendo, the mountain is “on fire” with deep reds and vibrant gold. Sometimes the phenomenon appears as a red lava flow, other times, as if liquid gold was pouring down.
Park Ranger Kari Cobb says that the time for Firefall is starting now, according to their calculations, and will continue for about ten days, more or less. She reminds visitors that precipitation and cloud cover can change quickly, but so far, this weekend is looking clear and beautiful, and the Horsetail Fall is on.
“It is flowing, there’s definitely water. It’s warm, and we’re getting water from the higher elevations, making the waterfall bigger,” explains Cobb. “There are a lot of photographers here this weekend, and I’ve heard a lot of talk about it.” The bigger the waterfall, the better the firefall.
Many people gather conveniently at the El Capitan picnic area, for a good view of Horsetail Fall that’s easy to access (less than 2 miles past Yosemite Lodge at the Falls on Northside Drive). You can also seek out any safe location where the falls are backlit by the setting sun, with many good spots along the river.
Yosemite Conservancy is offering a class, “Photographing the ‘Firefall,'” Feb. 22-23. Professional photographer John Senser will “lead a quest to help you capture striking images of this fleeting display.” It’s reported to be an easy hike, less than 1 mile on mostly level terrain, and with snow, conditions may vary. The elevation is 4,000’ and the registration fee is $182.
You don’t have to be a pro to view and capture the magic of Firefall. We drove in with friends and teens last year for the first time. Every second that passed as we were watching, we were more impressed. It kept getting better, and the 10 minutes it lasted seemed much longer.
If you go to photograph Firefall and you’re not a pro, some of the cameras poised may be intimidating. As long as you don’t knock anyone’s fancy tripod over, you’ll be fine. It’s a long drive into the valley and can be a little crowded, so gas up, arrive early for good parking, and plan to drive out after dark.
It’s February in Yosemite – dress accordingly. Our point-and-shoot cameras did a fairly decent job of covering the action. Remember, though, it’s not just about capturing the photograph.
The best part is just being there.
(Photos by Kellie Flanagan)
Editor’s note: The falls in Yosemite are, of course, affected by the amount of precipitation. Waterfalls are not running very full at this time, but a winter storm is expected on Tuesday, Feb. 19, so Horsetail Fall should be recharged the middle of next week.