Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Each February Mother Nature puts on a dazzling display of light and water in Yosemite National Park. Starting in mid-February, the setting sun illuminates a seasonal spray of water known as Horsetail Fall. If the conditions are right a stunning ribbon of lava-like liquid descends the eastern face of the famous granite monolith El Capitan.
The glowing effect lasts for a mere 12 minutes.
Fire Fall is the popular name given to this natural phenomena. The moniker is a nod to a past event in which staff of the Glacier Point Hotel would throw burning embers over the edge of the towering cliffs at Glacier Point. The embers would float down some 3,000 feet to the valley floor below. From a distance it looked as if a waterfall of fire was flowing down the side of the valley. The National Park Service ended the practice in 1968 because of the damage being done by the overwhelming number of spectators, and because it was not a natural event. Ironically, the Glacier Point Hotel was destroyed by fire 18 months later and was not rebuilt.
In 1973 a landscape photographer, Galen Rowell, noticed the setting February sun illuminated a seasonal water fall on the face of El Capitan. He is the first known photographer to capture this interplay of sun and water. But it wasn’t until the digital age of the internet that Fire Fall really became widely known
Today, the popularity of Fire Fall has led to crowds of photographers eager to add the image to their portfolio. In response, the National Park Service launched a pilot program to issue free parking permits to limit the number of people parking near the most popular place to photograph Fire Fall.
According to the Park Service, there will be no parking permits issued in 2019, so it will be smart to come early and find a place to park.
Fickle Fire Fall
For the fall to flow like lava there are 2 musts:
The setting sun must strike that portion of El Capitan where Horsetail Fall is flowing. This occurs from about February 14th through the 27th, but even the slightest cloud cover in the western sky will prevent the sun from lighting up the water.
There must be enough snow pack. The ephemeral nature of Horsetail Fall becomes apparent when one realizes that the basin on top of El Capitan that feeds the fall is only a 30-acre area lying between 6,200 and 7,600 feet. Without a sizable amount of snow in that basin there is no water to create the falls. The good news is that 2019 has been a wet year so far and Horsetail Fall is flowing. Recently (January 29, 2019) the snow pack is slightly above average for this time of year.
In past years, while the snow melt was plentiful, clouds obscured the setting sun. In one particularly disappointing attempt the conditions started out perfect. The day was cloudless, the fall was flowing, and several hundred of my closest friends joined me in the area near the parking lot of the El Capitan Picnic Area (GPS coordinates 37.728, -119.620). We pointed our cameras at the misty flow and watched in quiet awe as the setting sun began to turn the water yellow and then deepen to gold. We held our collective breaths waiting for the glow to begin when Mother Nature, that Fickle Mistress, materialized a cloud out of thin air and shoved it in front of the sun. Just like that the light was snuffed out. An audible groan could be heard across the valley that evening.
Plan to Improve Your Odds
To increase your odds of success, do your homework:
First and foremost check the NPS website for the current snow pack affecting Horsetail Falls.
Second check the weather forecast...repeatedly. I favor Weather Underground. It allows me to check the cloud conditions by the hour for the valley floor.
Next, if your travel plans are during winter weather, check the local road conditions.
Finally, come early and bring a folding chair. You will undoubtedly be sitting in your spot for several hours before the sun sets.
If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate and Fire Fall is a bust (like 2018) just remember that famous quip by my fellow photographer Ralph Chojnacki: “A bad day in Yosemite is better than a good day back home.” Good advice Ralph. There are plenty of other beautiful images to capture in Yosemite.
About the author. JS Engelbrecht cut his teeth in photography in the fashion industry before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty." Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.