Happy Wanderer: Yosemite’s ‘fire falls’ are a sight to behold


EASTBAYTIMES: February 16, 2017

Fire and water. Man has been captivated by these two basic elements since the beginning of time. It’s no wonder, then, that one of Yosemite National Park’s great illusions draws thousands to Horsetail Fall each February.

Over the next two weeks, Yosemite’s highest fully-airborne waterfall (1,570 feet down the face of El Capitan) “ignites” in a cascade of blood orange. The “fire falls” phenomenon occurs when the sun dips just behind the horizon and reflects off Horsetail Fall, creating the effect of hot lava.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t the first fire falls to draw visitors to Yosemite National Park. In 1872, the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel started pushing red-hot coals off Glacier Point every night during the summer months. The tradition continued for almost a century, until it was canceled in 1968 because of environmental impact. Older visitors still remember the thrill of seeing the glowing embers tumble over the granite cliff into Yosemite Valley.

But a natural fire falls depends, not on man, but on nature. First, the water must be flowing, which means there needs to be snowmelt to feed this seasonal waterfall. Secondly, and equally important, the sky needs to be fairly clear and not obscured by clouds.

Photographer Aaron Meyers has calculated the water flow and the weather and determined that the best evening for seeing the Horsetail fire falls is Feb. 21. He figures there’s a good chance of viewing each night from now through Feb. 27 and even goes so far as to estimate the nightly showtime. His website is https://blog.aaronmphotography.com/2016/12/30/horsetail-falls-2017-yosemite-national-park/.

Some of the best photos I’ve seen of Yosemite, including the fire falls, are in Michael Ambrose’s collection. The photographer in residence at the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, Ambrose’s photos grace the walls of the lodge and many have a 3-D effect that magically draws you into the scene. His fire falls image captures, exquisitely, the luminescent ribbon of light as it streaks down the sheer granite wall.

If Mother Nature decides to be fickle (the fire falls don’t appear every year), there is still plenty to do in midwinter in Yosemite. Tenaya Lodge has its own winter activities program that includes rosy-cheek activities like guided snowshoe hikes by daylight and flashlight, ice skating on their own outdoor rink and skiing, boarding and tubing at nearby Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (aka Badger Pass).

If John Muir ever saw the Horsetail fire falls, there’s no record he wrote about it. What’s clear, though, is how he felt about winter in Yosemite. In a letter to a friend in November 1869, Muir said he was drawn to return to the mountains in winter. He wrote: “I am told that the winter storms there will not be easily borne, but I am bewitched, enchanted, and tomorrow I must start for the great temple to listen to the winter songs and sermons.”


Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite: https://www.tenayalodge.com/
Tenaya Lodge, Yosemite National Park Hotel and Resort: http://www.tenayalodge.com
Yosemite National Park: https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/Horsetail-Fall.htm


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