Every February, for about ten days, an ephemeral waterfall on the east end of El Capitan is uniquely lighted by the setting sun, making it it appear – from certain angles – as though it is a falling river of fire.
This natural “Firefall” (not to be confused with the man-made ones off of Glacier Point from 1872 through 1968) occurs only when Horsetail Fall has water flowing over it. This requires sufficient snowmelt/precipitation, warmer winter temperatures, and otherwise favorable weather conditions. Even when conditions are optimal, the dramatic lighting conditions only last for about 10 minutes.
National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell was one of the first to capture this phenomenon on film while on assignment in Yosemite back in 1973. In the decades since Rowell’s image was published, the event has drawn hundreds of thousands of photographers from around the world – all seeking to capture their own versions of the view, and unfortunately overcrowding sensitive environments in Yosemite Valley. See a ground-level 360° VR perspective of the photographer crowds here. In recent years, Yosemite has necessarily restricted access and vehicle traffic in order to better protect the park environments.
Some creative photographers find other viewpoints – away from the crowds and sometimes requiring technical climbing or mountaineering skills to get to.
An aerial approach adds further complexity, requiring coordination of aircraft, weather conditions, water flow over the fall, rare calm winds over the Sierra in winter, and careful observation of National Park Service concerns for park overflights. Note that drone operation is prohibited within all U.S. national parks.
This past week, all the necessary elements finally came together.
©2021 Photography by Scott Highton
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