The Horsetail Firefall of Yosemite

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The Horsetail Firefall in Yosemite National Park in California is an amazing spectacle. It’s a seasonal waterfall that flows in the winter and early spring, and falls over the east side of El Capitan, so as a backdrop it has one of the most impressive walls of granite in the entire park. The waterfall itself is unimpressive — just a trickle of water fed by the melting snow tumbling 480 meters down El Capitan, but during middle to late February when the weather is just right, the very last sunrays of the day selectively linger on the falls, lighting it up with a golden glow that makes the water look like flowing lava. Each year hundreds of photographers and thousands of park visitors gather in the waning evening light hoping to catch this amazing natural display that last hardly ten minutes.


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The Horsetail Firefall is very finicky and requires a number of ingredients to come together to trigger the glow. First and foremost, the Horsetail Fall must be flowing, which means that the temperature must be warm enough to melt the snowpack to feed the waterfall. If temperatures are too cold, the snow will stay frozen and Horsetail Fall won’t flow. The Horsetail Fall is fed entirely by snowmelt. Since there are no runoffs feeding the falls, it stays dry the rest of the year. In autumn, the sun rays hits Yosemite Valley at the same angle as it does in February but at that time there is no water to catch the beam.

Second, the western sky must be clear at sunset. There must be no obstructing clouds or rain or snowfall, otherwise the sun’s rays will be blocked. Thankfully, winter weather in Yosemite can be highly variable. Even though a day may start off cloudy, it can clear up by sunset.

The Yosemite Valley was discovered by Europeans in 1851, but the natural Firefall was never mentioned. Probably no one was looking at the falls at the right time at the right weather condition. It was only in 1973, the phenomenon was first captured on photograph by Galen Rowell. But it wasn’t until the age of internet that the Firefall achieved global fame.


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This article has been revised and republished from an earlier article that appeared on Amusing Planet on May 24, 2010.

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