“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.