Glorious Gazing

Horsetail Fall appears as molten lava as the setting sun’s rays create an orange glow show.
Horsetail Fall appears as molten lava as the setting sun’s rays create an orange glow show. Special to Sierra Star

It’s a block party, sometimes for thousands, but not at the end of the street in the cul-de-sac. This block party spreads along Northside and Southside Drives, follows the banks of the Merced River and continues into the El Capitan Picnic Area in Yosemite Valley.

It’s attended by neighbors from around the world who gather at sunset in mid to late February each year hoping to catch a glimpse of the firefall effect on Horsetail Fall, located on the eastern face of El Capitan. Due to environmental concerns (trampled meadows), and because it was not a natural event, the firefall practice was curtailed in January 1968.

Horsetail Fall can glow orange during sunset “in a way reminiscent of the Firefall that occurred historically from Glacier Point,” explains the Yosemite National Park Horsetail Fall webpage.. That historic Firefall was created by burning embers from a red fir bark bonfire pushed over the edge creating a stream of glowing coals.

Some in quest of the show put on by the sun and this ephemeral (seasonal) waterfall arrive in early afternoon, scouting out a spot that will give them the most effusive view and photographs.

Others rush in just minutes before the hoped for radiance of color featuring first pinks and then orange and reds. Bill drove from San Diego the day before, took great photos of the Horsetail Fall event on Feb. 12 which he shared with all of us, and then came back Feb. 13 not very hopeful with the sun sometimes partially or completely obscured by clouds that day. But he quickly ran through the icy coating of snow partially covering the pine needles on the ground to his truck to grab his camera and tripod as the color began to intensify.

A perfect view

The search for just the right spot to experience the incandescent glow that the fall, setting sun and rock face of El Capitan create, if the conditions are just right, might have happened the year before as internet sites and blogs are searched through, or it might be found by hiking the valley floor.

However, the valley floor hike, this year, was impeded by flooded meadows, water running over roadbeds and signs that warned: “Do not stop here rockslide area.”

I have used Aaron Myers’ blog for the past two years to find his calculations for the prime viewing days for this spectacular show. He also maps out spots where he has taken photos included in his blog.

Friendly conversations occur naturally among this assembled group of world neighbors. “Is this the first time you have come to see this event?” “I was here last night and there was nothing.” “Last year I climbed up a dry creek bed to get a view over the treetops,” “Should I use a UV filter?” “What size lens is best?” “Where is the best view?” There’s always someone in the crowd with an answer.

Last year, Ron Colgate brought his mamiya/sekor 1000DTL film camera and was unsure about the settings on it since he had not used it for some time. There were at least two in the near vicinity who knew the camera and were able and willing to help him out. Colgate shot some firefall pictures with the camera a friend brought to him from Japan in 1969. He dropped the film at a local store for developing. A year later, he finally got the prints. “It seems that my iPhone got better pictures than his trusty old friend,” said his wife Sherry.

Catching the firefall effect

“The ‘firefall’ effect happens during the second half of February when there is a clear sky and enough snow for the waterfall to flow. Even some haze or minor cloudiness can greatly diminish or eliminate the effect,” according to the the YNP webpage.

Preparations for this block party are similar to those for the one on your street. Pack up folding lawn chairs, snacks and full dinners, little single burner camp stoves for heating water for soup or hot chocolate, a book to read or crossword puzzle to work while you wait and carry it all in collapsible, folding utility wagons or backpacks and reusable grocery bags. But there are other important accessories brought to this party.

While just making the effort to view this miracle of nature with family and friends is well worth one’s time, bringing “glass,” whether it be a simple point and shoot or phone camera, a more hi-tech camera with a 200-300mm lens or binoculars, is certainly another option.

For two years in a row I have been a part of the crowd clapping as the setting sun changed Horsetail Fall from white to pinkish and finally orange. A hush falls over the crowd as tinges of color seem to tickle the fall’s flow. There are some “ahs” but more silence as the color intensifies. Last year, the wind created a veil of water and it was a one act show of dancing water.

This year, the wind was absent and the fall resembled a flow of lava and after the first act faded and onlookers began to leave, there were three more blasts of color completing acts two through four. The four-act show lasted about 14 minutes.

If you decide to experience this gigantic block party, do some research beforehand. There are strict parking restrictions and steep fines for those who choose not to follow them. The YNP website listed above explains the parking rules.

As onlookers packed up chairs and cameras and collapsed extended tripod legs, a quiet “Thank you Mother Nature,” was heard from a visitor from Hamburg, Germany who had never heard about the firefall effect until a chance conversation at Tunnel View alerted him to the timeliness of his visit.