Even amid the awe-inspiring beauty of Yosemite National Park, El Capitan stands out.
The natural rock formation is legendary among park visitors and mountain climbers from around the world. But, even frequent visitors have likely never witnessed its annual “Firefall” event.
Beginning in the second half of February each year, light from the setting sun strikes Horsetail Fall (a 1,570-foot waterfall that cascades down El Capitan’s eastern face in winter and early spring) at just the right angle. For the next week or two, the sunlight illuminates the upper portion of the waterfall causing it to glow a deep, vibrant crimson and orange. The result is a spectacular display of nature reminiscent of a “lava waterfall.”
The spectacle can be finicky. It requires conditions be just right or the Firefall won’t occur. First, the area’s winter snowpack must be sufficient and the air temperature warm enough in late February to melt the snow. This ensures proper water flow at Horsetail Fall (a condition that’s lacking in October when the angle of the sun is the same as in February, but the falls are dry).
The event also requires a clear view of the western sky at sunset. Clouds or fog can obstruct the light from the sunset and not properly illuminate the falls. This is especially tricky in the Sierra Nevada, as the weather varies wildly day to day, even hour to hour. The sky can be crystal clear in the morning and completely socked-in that same afternoon. Like the elusive green flash phenomenon, when it does occur, the event is short-lived. Even under ideal conditions, it only lasts for about ten minutes each day.
The Firefall was captured in 1973 by photographer Galen Rowell, who snapped its first-ever photograph. For decades, it occurred each year in relative obscurity. It wasn’t until recently — with the proliferation of blogs, Facebook, and the internet — that it began to garner worldwide attention. These days, massive crowds gather by the hundreds to witness and photograph the spectacle. The few hotels in the area routinely sell out months in advance, so be sure to book early.