It is 3,000 feet to the bottom
And no undertaker to meet you
There is a difference
Between bravery and just plain

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Yosemite Valley was vastly different than it is today. Its status as a protected National Park stood decades in the future. People actually lived amongst the prairies and towering rocks, including the Father of the National Parks, John Muir.

In the early 1870s, an Irish immigrant named James McCauley constructed a hotel atop Glacier Point, a vista with sweeping views of the valley. McCauley frequently kindled campfires for guests at the edge of the cliffs. At the end of the evening, he would jettison the embers over the sides. As the valley had inhabitants, these fiery drops produced quite a show for those below. Visitors started to request nightly performances, which came to be known as the Yosemite Firefall.

Eventually, tumbling cinders streaked down Yosemite Valley every summer night at 9 PM. Though the original location was eventually banned from the practice – noted by a warning sign about 3,000-foot drops without undertakers – the Firefall tradition lasted from 1872 to 1968, when the National Park Service stepped in. Ostensibly ended because the Firefall is not a natural event, it may have continued if humans didn’t trample the meadows in their attempts to witness it.

Today, it seems like a massive wildfire danger, in addition to the appropriate aforementioned reasons. Still, the sight of a Firefall would likely be incredible. Because of the timeframe and location, footage of the spectacle is sparse, but it was featured in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny.

A 1921 advertisement - John H. Williams
Long-exposure photograph of the Firefall - photo by Scfry

We can no longer watch a manufactured Firefall, but, thankfully, Mother Nature has us covered.

Firefalls still happen at Yosemite National Park and they don’t require any actual fire. Just the elements of the universe.

One of the greatest walls in the Valley is undoubtedly El Capitan. This monolith rises vertically for 3,000 feet above the meadows. Beyond the stately beauty of the cliffs and the climbing it provides, the tall granite also produces some of the world’s most sumptuous waterfalls. One such cascade sits on the eastern flank of El Capitan. Unlike some of the waterfalls in the park, Horsetail Fall is ephemeral, only flowing during certain parts of the calendar.

When snowmelt or rain goes over the edge at Horsetail Fall, it plunges more than 2,000 feet along the walls of El Cap. For a short period each year, from mid-to-late February, if one stands at the right vantage point and the star aligns, magic occurs. The angle of the sun, the topology of the rock, and the water conditions can turn water into fire.

The location of the fall on El Capitan - graphic by Jarek Tuszynski
Horsetail Fall in February 2008 - photo by Wcwoolf
Firefall - photo by Eric Paul Zamora

If conditions are right, the illusion of lava or fire pouring over El Capitan can last for about 10 minutes in the quarter-hour that precedes sunset. A significant amount of snowfall needs to occur, followed by a warming period to allow the water to melt. Then, the western sky must be cloudless. Without direct sunlight, the Firefall will fizzle. Over the millennia, erosion etched a channel into the rock, which funnels the light into the water perfectly.

If it’s a snowless year or a cloudy day, the Firefall will be absent. Some photographers spend many years patiently waiting for it to appear.

If fortune favors the visitor, though, the results are stunning. 2017 seemed to provide spectacular footage:

History might be in the process of repeating, however.

As the prestige of the Firefall spreads, thanks in large part to its photogenic nature in the age of social media, larger and larger crowds gather to witness the phenomenon. Add in a splash of limited availability and things can get out of hand. In 2020, the National Park Service shuttered two of the best locations for viewing the water because crowds produced too much damage to the surrounding vegetation. We find it hard to retain the lessons of the past, even when we have a previous incarnation of the Firefall from which to learn. In 2023, reservations were required for entry on the Firefall dates.

Further, climate trends might hamper the process from even happening. As temperatures rise, snow at the right time will become rarer. The angle needed from the sun will not change, so a lack of flowing water could end the Firefall for good.

Thankfully, we live in an era of fantastic documentarians, so we can enjoy the view for posterity.

Photo by Edgar Le
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