“Hello, Glacier Point!” “Hello, Camp Curry!”
“Is the fire ready?” “The fire is ready!”
“Let the Fire Fall!”
“The Fire Falls!”
From 1872 to 1968 those words were utilized ceremonially to usher in one of Yosemite National Park’s most famous spectacles: The Yosemite Firefall. The invention, pride, and joy of James McCauley, the owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel.
Each evening in summer a roaring bonfire was built at the edge of Glacier Point. At 9 pm sharp the bonfire’s embers were then shoved over the edge, creating a 3,200-foot ‘waterfall’ of fire down the side of the rock for the enjoyment of hundreds of tickled spectators gathered on the valley floor below.
After being discontinued a few times over the years – for a variety of reasons – the event was brought to an official end in 1968 as it was deemed by George Hertzog, the director of the National Park Service, as an unnatural spectacle more appropriate for Disneyland than a National Park.
A press release from the final event put the end of its era into words quite wonderfully:
“The Firefall, a fancy of James McCauley’s that caught on and was popular for almost a hundred years, died Thursday, January 25, 1968, in a blazing farewell. It was a dandy Firefall, fat and long and it ended with an exceptionally brilliant spurt, the embers lighting the cliff as they floated slowly downward … There weren’t many people around to watch. Maybe fifty. Hardly any congestion at all.”
Today a Firefall event of a different kind lives on. A natural fire fall takes place across the valley, on the corner of the largest granite monolith in the United States, El Capitan.
In 1973 National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell captured an image of Horsetail Fall, red hot orange from the glow of the setting sun. This photograph kick-started the popularity of the new Yosemite Firefall. Photographers from all over the world visit Yosemite for this annual event, which takes place only during the last few weeks of February.
Yosemite Valley’s shape limits the potential for this event to about 15 minutes before sunset, from roughly February 16th through February 23rd, each year. With a bit of luck, the setting sun will strike Horsetail Fall at just the right angle to illuminate the upper sections of the water as it cascades off the corner of El Capitan.
So, simply swing by the valley on these dates with you your best telephoto lens and you’ll be given a chance to capture an image of a lifetime? Not so fast, friends. As it seems to be the case with all things photography, this is also not quite so simple. Several factors must come together just right in order to make the Firefall what we all want it to be.
The following is the recipe required:
Horsetail Fall must be flowing. This is an ephemeral fall, meaning it doesn’t flow all the time because its water does not come from a creek or lake. It is from snowmelt. If there is not enough snowpack in February, there will not be the water necessary to flow. If all that snowpack is still snow, it, of course, isn’t going to be flowing either. Temperatures at the top of El Capitan must be warm enough to have that snowmelt into water.
And for the fire, the western sky needs to be clear at sunset, as well. After all, it is the sun that puts the final touches on this magnificent scene with the oranges and reds. Some wispy clouds and a breeze can add a nice touch to your image, too.
Now, if all of these factors line up just right, the Yosemite Firefall will light as if it were hot campfire coals being poured over the lip of El Capitan. And somewhere James McCauley will be smiling down on all of the photographers and captive onlookers lucky enough to be there witnessing it, probably wanting to exclaim out loud as he had done so many times in the past, “Let the Fire Fall!”
Finally, if you are heading to Yosemite to catch this event, remember to bring your patience hats. Firefall draws an incredible amount of attention so the masses are in full force, so to speak. Especially on weekends and holidays. Parking is limited, and there are plenty of Park rules to follow, too. You’ll also need to hike a distance in order to get to your chosen viewpoint.
This coming week another Backcountry Journeys’ group will be at Yosemite with our sights set on Firefall! We had great success during last year’s Yosemite in Winter tour, and look for a similar outcome this year! For those of you on this tour, it is time to get excited! For those of you who missed out, there is always next year. Or, visit Yosemite with us in Spring or for Fall Colors. Yosemite provides something supremely special no matter what time of year.
Kenton Krueger grew up and spent the first 33 years of his life in the corn country of Omaha, Nebraska. After studying aviation at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Aviation Institute, he “conned” his way into the newsroom at the award-winning Omaha World-Herald where for 3+ years he wrote and photographed news articles on a variety of topics such as community events, travel and even mixed martial arts for the sports department. Yet something was missing. While on backpacking trips to Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks in the mid-2000’s he was quick to realize that the wild lands of the western United States stoked a fire in his heart like nothing else could. This realization led to relocation to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he hasn’t looked back. He has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.