For the past three years, I have been wanting to visit Yosemite National Park to photograph the natural fire-falls. No these aren't lava spewing, heat dispensing falls of fire like the ones in the LOTR movies. Rather for a few days in February, the sun's angle is such, that it lights up 'Horsetail Falls' in Yosemite National Park as if they were on fire. It really is a spectacular sight and one that I have been fortunate to photograph last year as well as this year.
These falls were made famous by Galen Rowell through his photograph 'Last light on Horsetail Falls'. Since then throngs of photographers descend upon Yosemite during the month of February, to capture this natural wonder. This event happens twice a year - in October and in February. During October, the falls are dry and hence one cannot see the event. Even in February, a few conditions have to be met before one can see this beautiful phenomenon - there should be sufficient snow melt for the falls to flow and the sun should not be obstructed by clouds around sunset (when this phenomenon takes place). During this window in February, as the evening sets in and the sun goes down, the light falling on El Capitan assumes a rich golden color. As the sun nears the horizon, the light falling on either side of the falls, gets narrower and narrower, until the light is focused just on the falls, giving the impression that the falls are on fire. It was thus with the intent of photographing this elusive event, that my friend Mike and I drove from Los Angeles to Yosemite on a cold Saturday morning.
We arrived at Yosemite National Park around 1 pm and found a great spot with a clear view of the falls. We set our chairs down, mounted our cameras on tripods and high-fived each other, excited that we had got a prime spot to photograph this event. While gorging on sandwiches and washing them down with coke, we waited for sunset and watched as the initially empty landscape, began to fill up with photographers. By 4 pm, all the good spots had gone and panic was setting in among the late arrivals. Some took to the trees and some waded into the river water to try and get that perfect composition. As the excitement mounted and the friendly chatter of all present drowned the babbling of the Merced river, 'Ra' decided to play dirty and hid behind some clouds. Some of us started to get nervous, thinking that we might not see the fire-falls, while others started to pray for the clouds to part. It was really interesting to watch the reaction of people around us - people from different walks of life and interests, all hoping and praying for the clouds to part and let the sunlight through. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the clouds were completely obscuring the sun and most of us had lost hope of seeing the event. And then... Magic! The bottom of the falls started to light up as the sun's rays broke through the clouds. "It's happening", I shouted out to the other photographers, who then looked up and ran towards their gear. Slowly, but surely, 'Horsetail Falls' transformed into the 'Fire-Falls' right before our eyes. Noisy chatter was replaced by shutter clicks as awe-struck spectators marveled at the sight before their eyes. And then ten minutes later, it was all gone. The 'Fire-falls' reverted back to 'Horsetail Falls', as everyone let out a collective sigh of disappointment.
One thing is for sure - Mike and I will be back next year to capture this event. I for one, just want to be in the presence of this indescribable beauty.
Here is a video that I created of the event.
Recently my video of 'Horsetail Falls' was profiled in a program that aired on NHK, Japan. My segment can be seen from 00:15 to 01:35 in the clip below.