Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

The Yosemite February Firefall

February 23, 2012, 1:58 pm

Horsetail Fall at Yosemite National ParkFor two weeks in February Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park bursts into a remarkable, searing orange streak. The phenomenon occurs on the eastern edge of El Capitan during sunset as the setting rays perfectly reflect off the waterfall, creating a vivid ribbon of neon orange against shadowy granite cliffs.  As a result, the waterfall deceivingly appears to be a flaming stream of lava. The colors run the gamut from soft pink to orange and bright red. It is the longest free-flowing fall in Yosemite, with a 1,500-feet drop.

Photographers from around the world line up their cameras every year hoping to get that magical shot. But they need fast fingers because the natural wonder only lasts for one to ten minutes. Conditions must be just right (clear skies, good water flow) or it won’t happen and everyone must wait until next February. Ansel Adams snapped the first known photograph of the fall sometime in the 1930s. But Galen Rowell captured the first colored photograph of the fall’s orange hue in 1973. His shot is still one of the most famous pictures of Horsetail Fall.  

This unique marvel is reminiscent of the original Yosemite “firefall,” a man-made park attraction beginning in the 1880s. Each summer a bonfire was constructed of red fir bark on the edge of Glacier Point. With the siren call “Let the Fire Fall!” fire tenders pushed the red coals over the brink. Park visitors gathered to watch the even cascade of glowing embers and sparks spill down the cliffs. The NPS ended this practice in 1968 due to preservation and safety concerns. But this artificial firefall dims in comparison to the authentic beauty of Horsetail Fall that only nature can make.

Watch the Yosemite Nature Notes video on Horsetail Fall to learn more.

Photo: Bethany Gediman - National Park Service