Let the Fire Fall!

In those nostalgic times before millions of tourists overran Yosemite valley, the “fire fall” was a great draw. For over thirty years, a chorus of greetings between Glacier Point and Camp Curry started the slow release of more than half a ton of burning redwood bark. As the fire hurtled down the cliffs below Glacier Point, a wonderous spectacle of a flaming waterfall was created.

Changing ideas about the role of the national parks and the exponentially increasing hordes of tourists doomed the fire fall in the 1960s. But it’s still remembered with great affection by Yosemite buffs (including those such as my eight-year-old son Julian, who have only seen it in slide shows and movies at campfire presentations).

Now touted as nature’s fire fall, Horsetail Falls (shown in the photo above) is backlit by the setting sun during the last two weeks in February.

This phenomenon was first made famous by a spectacular Galen Rowell photograph. It can be photographed from the El Capitan picnic area parking lot (or from some small clearings to the east of the picnic area) with a long lens.

On a recent cold but clear February evening Julian and I pulled up to the picnic area parking lot a few minutes before sunset. While Julian stayed in the car listening to his favorite Star Wars sound track, I got my camera and tripod set up along with a score or so of other hopeful photographers. (In some ways, photographing Yosemite is more like a competitive sport than a meditation on nature; more on this in a later story.)

As the sun went down, the light got golden on the cliffs of El Capitan–but Horsetail Falls didn’t ignite. Then the sun really set, and everything went grey. One by one the photographers packed up and left. Only a few of us were left. Finally I decided that the fire fall wasn’t going to happen, and packed up too.

As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Julian spoke up. “Dad,” he said, “It’s happening!”

The backlighting was triggered only when the sun was well below the horizon.

I turned around, yanked out my camera and tripod, and fired off about a dozen shots before the crimson turned to dullness. This is the first photo in the series I’ve processed.

Moral of the story: if you are photographing nature’s fire fall at Horsetail Falls–or any other natural phenomenon–wait for the bitter end.

Here’s another capture of the fire falling:

Let the Fire Fall 2

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Wow, I’ve got to get to Yosemite one of these days – Glad you and Julian were there to catch this! (Catch 22, coolness!)

  2. One park ranger told us the story of a woman who repeatedly insisted that the fire fall was from Half Dome and was upset when they insisted that it was only ever from Glacier Point. It turns out that they revived the tradition for the Bicentennial, July 4th, 1976, and used Half Dome as the fall location— which was, of course, when the woman had seen it.

    Can you imagine how much of a problem it would have been to do that from Half Dome on a regular basis?

  3. I was very lucky to have seen the firefall hundreds of times. We would all rush to the medow to see. Everynight event. Seemed know matter how many times you saw it … it never got old. It was one of the most awesome sights. Wonderful memories… As a kid growing up yosomite was a yearly vacation spot. We would camp 2 weeks at a time. I have nothing but fun memories. As a 20 yr old or older I camped with my girlfreinds for our annual week vacation. Now I take my daughter to see how awesome a place this is. Just wanted to comment on this topic… the awesome Fire Fall and I am so sorry it is no longer >>> 🙁

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