The firefall effect
The phenomenon is often referred to as the “Firefall”, a nod to a manmade firefall the park used to organize decades before. It’s caused by a perfect alignment of the sun as it sets over Yosemite Valley in February. As the sun sinks lower in the sky, the silvery rock face of El Capitan turns yellow and then golden as two cast shadows form on either side of Horsetail Falls, making it the only thing left lit on the entire cliff. The waters of the falls illuminate the streams of light as it turns from yellow to orange to deep red. And for a few serendipitous minutes, Horsetail Falls almost seems to look like lava.
A rare show of nature
The firefall phenomenon lasts for about two weeks in total beginning around mid-February. But it’s not guaranteed to come every year. Some years, Horsetail Falls may not carry enough water during the two week window to reflect the sunlight and cause the glowing effect. Other years, there may be too much cloud cover obscuring the light. February 2016 was the best firefall of the last several years due to relatively larger volumes of water after previous years of severe drought.
Depending on the combination of factors, it’s possible photographers can come to Yosemite year after year without getting a single photo of this natural wonder. Meanwhile, others might get it on their first try. Luck pays no heed to man’s whims.
Where to set up your camera
By far, the most popular spot to take pictures of Horsetail Falls is the El Capitan picnic area. Expect to see large crowds with a tailgate party atmosphere in late February. More adventurous photographers willing to scout their own locations are the most likely to be rewarded with unique pictures no one has seen before. Any position that faces west with a view of the falls has a potential to be a great photo.
How it got so popular
The first known color photo of the firefall effect on Horsetail Falls was taken by Galen Rowell in 1973. Titled Last Light on Horsetail Fall, Yosemite, Rowell captured the shot when he saw the illumination on accident one evening walking through the park. Understanding what he just stumbled on, he immediately ran to his car and raced across the valley at high speed for a good vantage point before it all faded away. The photo he captured popularized the firefall phenomenon and started what would turn into the annual pilgrimage of photographers we see at Yosemite today.