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Yosemite National Park | Horsetail Fall

Elusive 'firefall' defies odds, shines bright in Yosemite

Staff Writers

Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 17:04 - Every year, adventurous photographers flock to Yosemite National Park in California hoping to catch a glimpse of a dazzling, but short-lived, spectacle. And, this year, winter weather cooperated just in time.

A week ago, the famous 'firefall' at Yosemite was running bone-dry thanks to a relatively inactive winter. But with the light snow and warming temperatures over the weekend, a thin stream began to flow down the face of Horsetail, treating onlookers to one of California's favorite natural splendors, according to SFGATE.

"Sunday night into Monday we did get some snow, maybe a half-inch on the valley floor and more up top," Park spokesperson Scott Gediman told the news agency. "I don't think it's going to be a good flow...but with the snow and little bit of a warming pattern today and tomorrow it could be a little bit more."

With more flurries in the forecast, Gediman is optimistic the firefall will continue to delight park-goers through the week.


Known as the Firefall, El Capitan's Horsetail Falls treats lucky viewers to a remarkable optical illusion for a few short weeks every February. Starting around mid-month, the setting sun aligns just so with the rock face to illuminate the falling water in vivid shades of orange and yellow, giving the impression of lava streaming down the side of the landmark peak.

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But while the chance is there every year, actually catching the falls in the act can be tricky. The angle of the sun is the same in October, but the falls dry up during the spring after the snowpack that feeds them is gone, leaving mid-to-late February as the only time for the phenomenon. The window each day is only about 10 minutes long, corresponding with the last red-orange rays of the lowest angle of the setting sun as they reach the smoother-falling upper part of the waterfall. Naturally that also means you need a sunny February day in Yosemite, warm enough to trigger snow melt atop El Capitan. But the winter can't have been similarly quiet - the falls only flow when there's sufficient snowpack in the small basin that feeds them.

While it's not the blockbuster snowpack as seen in Winter 206-2017, photographic treasure hunters can rest assured that they'll be given the opportunity for what might be their once-in-a-lifetime shot. More snow is expected later this week, with a slight warming trend expected for the weekend. Keep in mind, however, Yosemite is testing a pilot program which requires guests to secure a free day-parking permit on Eventbrite this year. 

While 'firefall' is certainly an apt name for the sight, it is also a nod to 'original' Yosemite Firefall, a summer nighttime spectacle put on by the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel in the late nineteenth century through the late 1960s. Glowing embers were pushed from the top of Glacier Point and allowed to fall more than 2953 ft. to the valley below, making a 'waterfall of fire' for the delight of onlookers. The National Parks Service put a stop to the show in 1968, in the interest of preserving the natural environment.

WATCH BELOW: Western U.S. to see more snow, rain through the week

Sources: California Department of Water Resources, Yosemite Firefall, Original Yosemite FirefallSFGATE

With files from Weather Network meteorologist Caroline Floyd

Thumbnail image: Wikipedia/File photo

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