It can turn into a quest, this Yosemite Firefall event.
Comparisons can be drawn to wildlife photography, in a way, because one can’t assume it’ll be there even when you do all the things necessary to get yourself in the right spot at the right time.
It certainly became a quest for our Backcountry Journeys group this past February, as Firefall proved to be difficult during our seven-day tour. In fact, it didn’t always feel like it was going to happen for us.
‘Firefall’ is a natural happening that takes place in the Yosemite Valley, more specifically on the corner of El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the United States.
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 ‘Yosemite Firefall.’ Photographers from all over the world visit Yosemite for this annual event.
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 with your best telephoto lens during the last two weeks in February and you’ll be given a chance to capture an image of a lifetime?
Not so fast, friends.
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.
If all of these factors line up, the Yosemite Firefall will light as if it were hot campfire coals being poured over the lip of El Capitan.
Our weather outlook appeared good on our tour’s first evening. The western sky was supposed to remain clear at sunset, as well as through the night. This is necessary because the sun puts the final touches on this magnificent scene with the oranges and reds.
It was February the 16th, the first day of our ‘Yosemite in Winter’ Backcountry Journeys tour last year when weather predictions indicated that things in the sky should line up perfectly for Firefall. It was also President’s Day, 2019, and seemingly half the populations of Fresno and San Francisco made their way to the Valley to not only seek out Firefall but also to enjoy the seemingly record-breaking snow that had just fallen. The Valley had been blanketed by feet of fresh snow and was looking its prettiest.
All of the needed ingredients were there. There was plenty of snowfall in the high country, and the day’s sunshine was creating a flowing Horsetail Falls.
The final ingredient was a clear western sky 15 minutes prior to sunset and we’d have it!!
As expected, our group of photographers had their sights set on capturing the event, so we managed our day so as to give them their best shot, on the evening that had the most promise (the forecast for the remainder of the week was indicating cloudy skies -thus making chances for Firefall less than promising). This included eating dinner very early and posting up in the snow, down near the El Capitan picnic area, about 3 hours prior to sunset. Here we would need to stand our ground there in the deep snow in order to stake a claim on the valuable real estate that would allow for one of the few good angles for the shot.
The group waited. There was an anxious sense of anticipation amongst the herd of photographers and onlookers who were there as well, realizing things were more than likely going to happen on this night! It was palpable. And just as the sun started to drop in the western sky, a couple of pesky clouds moved in as if they were drawn in by some sort of conniving Bob Ross, ruining the potential for a really nice Firefall just as it was supposed to start.
Whammy!! All of that time spent waiting in the snow was all-for-not on this night. So much for simply showing up and getting what you want, right? Photographers know best that this is almost never the case. You’ve got to have patience, and you’ve got to put in your time.
The skies seemed right for another chance at Firefall on the following evening. Again, the predictions for subsequent evenings during our tour made it seem as if this could be our last shot, so we decided to go after it one more time. Not nearly the same amount of Park visitors remained, so we could get down to our spot near the El Cap picnic area a bit closer to sunset, saving a few hours of sitting in the snow waiting.
But again, it was not to be. This time it wasn’t even close as much thicker clouds moved in earlier than the previous night, ending things.
Maybe this Firefall was just not to be for us this year.
The following evening’s sky conditions made it clear that there would be no Firefall, so we opted for a traditional sunset landscape scene, which in Yosemite there is no shortage of.
We had all but given up hope for a Firefall chance as our next, and final, sunset at the Park was forecasted to be much the same. Completely cloudy. The plan was to photograph a big landscape on our final evening together.
But then it all changed, as weather sometimes does. All of a sudden, by mid-afternoon, clearing skies were the prediction! We decided that we could not sit idly by.
We had one final chance.
Dinner reservations were moved to a time that would accommodate, and we once again found ourselves positioned at the El Capitan picnic area, a very popular spot to view the event from just below the fall. On this night crowds were small, and we were able to get a really nice spot. Could this be the day? Might we have put in our time and were destined to reap some reward? Only time would tell.
Recall on night one everything seemed to be lining up and then at the last moment, we lost it?
Not this night!! We got it! And it was everything that it was billed to be. It completely lived up to the hype, and we were blessed with one of those special moments in time, as well as the images to go with.
It was… Beautiful.
While Firefall is no guarantee, it is a special thing to witness. It is one of those things that if you are lucky enough to see, and photograph, you’ll simply never forget it. Such as our story from 2019, it will be a story you’ll tell over and over again, about your quest to see Yosemite’s Firefall.
Reserve your spot today for Backcountry Journey’s Yosemite in Winter 2020 tour, set for February 16th – 21st, and put into motion your own “Quest for Yosemite’s Firefall.’
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica. 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, and newspaper writer and photographer. 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.
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Managing Your Photo Library (rescheduled)
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, Jan 25th, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time