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The Firefalls of Yosemite

A waterfall burns like fire in Yosemite National Park, but it's a difficult spectacle to capture. Here's how to do it:

Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Illilouette Falls, Sentinel Falls, Bridalveil Fall: Yosemite National Park is known as much for its spectacular waterfalls as it is for its enormous redwoods and massive walls of rock. The tallest of the falls is Yosemite Falls, which the National Park Service measures out at 2,525 feet tall. This waterfall is so big that it’s often visible without leaving your car while you’re driving the Yosemite Valley.

But for all the waterfalls, Yosemite also has another draw: firefalls.

The Glacier Point Firefall

Venture back well over 100 years to the late 1800s and Yosemite was a very different place; roads were muddy, rocky and sometimes impassable, and the area wasn’t yet a national park. Still, the scenic draw of this glacier-formed valley wasn’t unrecognized. The sheer rock walls and waterfalls were already drawing visitors, and camping and hotel establishments had been created in the park. Atop Glacier Point, a rock wall and precipice located on the southern side of Yosemite Valley, stood the Glacier Point Hotel, and regularly during the summer, the proprietors would build a large fire atop Glacier Point. Once a bed of coals was established, the fire-minder atop Glacier Point would steadily push burning coals off the rock face, allowing them to fall 3,000 feet to the valley floor, where they would land amid the rock breakdown pile at the base of the wall.

From the valley, the effect was called a “firefall,” appearing as if it were a burning waterfall. The practice continued on and off for almost a century, before ending in the 1960s when the National Park Service abolished the practice, decreeing it unnatural. The Glacier Park Hotel was razed shortly after, succumbing from centuries of Yosemite’s difficult weather conditions. Before the firefall practice ended, however, the evening firefalls had become quite the tourism attraction, packing the roads with car-borne spectators who could safely enjoy the spectacle from the valley.

An Entirely Natural Firefall in Yosemite

There is another firefall in the park that is entirely natural, and it wasn’t actually discovered until after the manmade Glacier Point firefall ceased to exist. From atop the east side of El Capitan, Horsetail Fall drops 1,000 feet. It’s a tall waterfall, but has less flow than many of Yosemite’s more spectacular cascades and often dries up after its springtime flows.

What’s unique about Horsetail Fall is that in mid- to late-February, the light of sunset will sometimes strike this waterfall in such a way that the water and mist appear as an orange and red, flame-like color, like fire flowing off the mountain. While El Capitan is likely to have snow atop its peak, the firefall of Horsetail Fall is visible from Yosemite Valley, from the El Capitan picnic area.

Planning Your Visit

If you want to experience Yosemite’s only current firefall, know that February is decidedly outside of Yosemite’s peak tourism season. Some roads and facilities may be closed, and tire chains may be needed for your vehicle. Still, winter is a wonderful time to visit this park (which can seem overcrowded on some summer days), and a great time to appreciate more of the solitude that led to John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt’s push to give the park federal preservation.

No matter when you decide to visit, whether during the February firefall season or not, plan any lodging and camping inside the park well ahead of time. Rooms and campsites fill up quickly. There are plenty of things to do in Yosemite National Park, including hiking, viewing the giant sequoias, rock climbing, waterfall viewing, swimming in the rivers, camping and backpacking.  Yosemite National Park is less than six hours from Los Angeles and less than four hours from San Francisco. Closest yet is the Reno-Tahoe area, which is just a couple hours away, on the eastern side of the Sierras.