Between mid-late February, Yosemite's Horsetail Falls turns into a natural phenomenon called Firefall. For just a short two weeks the setting sun strikes the small waterfall so perfectly, that the water ignites into a colorful and bright display that has to be seen to be believed.
Over 5 million visitors flock to Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada Mountain Range every year to take in the geological splendor. While most visitors get to see the park's waterfalls, very few ever get to witness the Firefall. For two weeks between mid-late February, a small waterfall that cascades off the eastern side of El Capitan turns into a colorful explosion as the sun sets. For Firefall to happen, conditions have to be just right and this is far easier said than done. California has been a long-term drought that has brought little snow to Yosemite National Park. However, over the last couple of years (2016-2017), there has been enough precipitation for the event to happen. This does not mean it will for sure happen next year or the following year, but if this trend continues, then Firefall should be expected.
Firefall is the name given to the waterfall during the two week period where the setting sun aligns with the waterfall to create the colorful and bright effect. The actual waterfall is named Horsetail Falls and it flows off the eastern face of El Capitan. During the day, one must have a very keen eye to spot the falls as there is not nearly as much water as Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil Falls. While in theory, Firefall could happen in mid-late October, this is a very dry period in Yosemite and the Firefall has only been recorded a handful of times during this month.
You can witness Firefall from anywhere along the Merced River or valley floor where you can see the east side of El Capitan, but the best viewing area is about 1 mile east of Cathedral Beach, on the south side of the Merced River. During the latter half of February, park rangers will usually rope off an area near the river for the crowds. Parking is very limited, so it is advised to arrive in this area about 30 minutes to an hour before sunset. Many hardcore "Firefallers" will arrive 3-4 hours in advance, but it is not necessary as the falls are high up, so even from the back of the crowd, you can still get a good view. The stretch of river for the best Firefall view is not marked by any sign, but there are generally many cars parked in the area, so it is hard to miss. If you want to be safe and get an exact location, have a ranger point it out to you on a map. Another alternative would be to park at Cathedral Beach and walk east, or park at Sentinel Beach and walk west down the Merced River. Some watch the falls from Northside drive, which puts you at a steeper angle while looking up at the falls. The location given on the map on this page is considered the prime viewing area as you do not have to crank your neck too much.
The Firefall lasts for about 10-15 minutes and begins around 20-25 minutes before sunset. If it is an extremely overcast day, it is probably best to try again another as the falls really only light up fully if enough sunlight can shine through. If you have nowhere else to be, it is always worth trying as sometimes the clouds move rather quick and a ray of light can escape and light up the waterfall. If you are photographing the waterfall, make sure to bring a longer lens (70-200mm and 70-300mm both suffice) as the waterfall is further away than it appears. A wide angle lens works well if you are trying to capture the entire scene with El Capitan and the trees below. If traveling from afar, check with the park about snow levels as if there is very little winter precipitation, the falls will either be too weak or nonexistent. Good luck and enjoy the show!
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
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