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Yosemite’s ‘Firefall’ Natural Wonder Illuminates El Capitan Through the End of February

Under the right conditions, viewers will have a short window of 10 minutes each evening to experience the glowing falls

When conditions are right, Horsetail Falls transforms and emits an enchanting ember glow reminiscent of lava or falling fire. (Evelyn Quek via Flickr under (CC BY 2.0) )
smithsonianmag.com

Every winter in mid- to late February, Yosemite National Park visitors have a chance to view Horsetail Falls in a different light. When conditions are right, the falls transform and emit an enchanting ember glow reminiscent of lava or falling fire. After dry conditions in the Sierra Nevada failed to awaken the falls last year, recent storms have brought back the 1,500-foot-tall cascade, and the "firefall" will be visible between February 12 to February 24, reports Joshua Yeager for the Visalia Times-Delta.

The falls were nicknamed "firefall" after a Yosemite tradition that ended in 1968 during which park officials would create an artificial lava flow by spilling embers off Glacier Point to entertain visitors, reports Mary Forgione for the Los Angeles Times. The naturally occuring firefall at Horsetail Falls first gained popularity in 1973 when photographer Galen Rowell captured the unusual marvel's first images. While creating artificial lava flow was simple, the natural phenomenon is anything but.

Specific conditions have to be met to view the spectacle. Horsetail Falls only flows during the winter when ideal temperatures melt enough snow, or if there is sufficient precipitation. So, if the water isn't moving, no "lava" will flow either. To set the falls "ablaze", sunlight has to hit Horsetail Falls at the right angle, and skies need to be clear, reports Tom Stienstra for the San Francisco Chronicle. According to the Yosemite National Park website, if there is even a slight hint of cloudiness or haziness in the sky, the firefall will not have its full vibrant effect or won't occur at all. If everything is just right, viewers will have a short window of ten minutes each evening to experience the falls, reports, the Visalia Times-Delta.

The event is a rare sight to catch that even seasoned photographers who travel to El Capitan each year don't capture in all its fiery glory. When they do, it's a vista like no other.

"In all of those visits, we've only seen the phenomenon in its full glory twice, and another four or five times with good color. The moment when it lights up, actually refracting, all of a sudden, it just sorts of pops, glowing, lava-like, deep colors with vibrancy, gorgeous," Lee DeCovnick, a hobbyist photographer, says to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although catching the sight is a bit finicky, it does not stop the thousands of visitors from trying to view the rare event on the eastern edge of El Capitan. In 2019, 2,200 visitors experienced firefall, reports Gino Spocchia for the Independent.

This year, those wishing to catch the ethereal spectacle will have to make reservations online to enter Yosemite National Park through February 8 to 28, reports Soo Kim for Newsweek. To help limit crowds during the Covid-19 pandemic and protect wildlife and sensitive vegetation around the falls, rangers have limited parking access to Yosemite Falls. Visitors will have to embark on a 1.5-mile hike to view the firefall, reports the Visalia Times-Delta. But don't let the hike stop you. The view is breathtaking.

"There's this magical moment you're waiting for, and yet there's always a question if it will happen. When it does, you watch this absolutely spectacular display. You feel so blessed, exhilarated," says photographer Janice DeCovnick to the San Francisco Chronicle.

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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