- Yosemite Firefall is a stunning optical illusion created by nature, occurring during a two-week window in mid-to-late February when the sunset’s light hits Horsetail Fall at just the right angle.
- The waterfall’s red-orange glow gives the illusion of molten lava streaming down El Capitan, captivating many visitors each year.
- Yosemite Firefall is located in Yosemite National Park, specifically flowing over the eastern edge of El Capitan, and can be best viewed from the El Capitan Picnic Area after a 1 1/2-mile walk from Yosemite Falls parking.
- The phenomenon is highly dependent on specific conditions, including clear skies, sufficient snowmelt to feed the waterfall, and above-freezing temperatures.
- The natural Yosemite Firefall was inspired by a human-made firefall at Glacier Point that took place until 1968 when embers were pushed off the mountain, creating a blazing stream of fire tumbling down the ledges.
The annual Yosemite Firefall is a captivating spectacle in which nature crafts a breathtaking optical illusion. For a brief period in mid-to-late February, when the setting sun perfectly aligns with Horsetail Fall in Yosemite, a fiery red-orange glow cascades down El Capitan’s eastern edge. Although it appears as if molten lava is flowing down the iconic granite walls, this mesmerizing effect is merely an enchanting play of light and water. The remarkable display has gained widespread popularity, drawing hordes of visitors each year to witness this astonishing natural phenomenon.
Horsetail Fall, an ephemeral waterfall, flows approximately 2,000 feet over El Capitan’s granite walls and typically only appears for a few weeks during the winter. To witness the awe-inspiring Yosemite Firefall, visitors are encouraged to walk 1 1/2 miles from Yosemite Falls parking to the El Capitan Picnic Area, where the best views can be obtained. However, due to its popularity, alternative parking at Yosemite Village or Curry Village, with a subsequent shuttle ride, is often necessary. The journey to the viewing spot may be challenging, especially in snowy and icy conditions, making warm clothing and suitable footwear essential.
The Yosemite Firefall is dependent on several crucial conditions. A clear sky is required for the sunset’s light to backlit the waterfall, creating the vibrant glow. Furthermore, sufficient snowmelt throughout the winter season is necessary to feed Horsetail Fall, while temperatures must remain above freezing to maintain the cascading water effect. Mother Nature does not guarantee this enchanting display, making each year’s occurrence a special and unpredictable event.
Interestingly, Yosemite’s Firefall has a historical counterpart in a human-made firefall that occurred off Glacier Point. In the late 1800s, James McCauley, a hotel owner, would host bonfires for his guests, pushing the embers over the cliff’s edge at nightfall. This human-made firefall became a popular attraction, but it eventually ceased in 1968. However, the legacy of these artificial firefalls inspired photographer Galen Rowell’s iconic 1973 photograph, “Last Light on Horsetail Fall.” The striking image mirrored nature’s version of the firefall and set the stage for the natural phenomenon we marvel at today in Yosemite National Park.
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The Firefall at Yosemite National Park is a natural phenomenon that makes a normal waterfall look like a river of lava. Yajnesh Bhat/Getty Images
The Firefall at Yosemite National Park © Xin Wang / Getty Images
The phenomenon happens from mid to late February © Spondylolithesis / Getty Images
Firefall over Glacier Point (left) and Horsetail Fall illuminated by sunset (right). Firefall photo (left) courtesy of the Yosemite Archives. Horsetail Fall photo (right) by Christine Fey.
Long-exposure photograph of the Firefall taken from the Ahwahnee Meadow. Author: Scfry