Chasing the Firefall

The Firefall Effect on Horsetail Falls

24-February 2006 to 26-February 2006: Driven by the thought of trying to get that sought-after firefall that the late Galen Rowell made so famous, my wife and I went on another spontaneous Yosemite trip. I didn't expect much out of this trip - though I was more concerned about my old 1990 Legend making it through the mountains and the cold...

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It was Friday morning. Julie and I weren't in too much of a hurry so we didn't leave the house until 11am. We intended to use this trip as the test for the new Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR; fancy term for a more professional model) camera we had bought online a week ago. Unfortunately, it was supposed to arrive anytime, but it ended up not arriving the morning of our departure.

That was too bad because I really wanted to use this trip as an excuse to learn how to use the equipment and start taking high resolution photos. After stubbornly resisting to change, I had finally resigned to the fact that the old 3 megapixel Sony camera wasn't cutting it anymore... But all that would have to wait.

So with the old trusty but outdated Sony camera in hand, and the 1990 Legend all loaded up with our gear and some food, we once again headed for Yosemite.

What was different about this trip was that we'd actually visit the park in the Winter. The ulterior motive was to get that firefall effect on Horsetail Falls.

The firefall used to be a practice done during the Summer earlier in Yosemite's heyday. There would be people lighting on fire some bark then push the stuff over Glacier Point before a delighted crowd at Camp Curry. This practice was discontinued in the mid 20th century because it wasn't consistent with the National Park principle of natural attractions.

I'm sure that to a photographer who took a long exposure of the event, it would look like a long streak of fire - the so-called firefall. The late Galen Rowell successfully took a photo of Horsetail Falls in much the same light - only this time it was the setting sun that "fired up" the lightly falling water.

I had read local periodicals and news releases about how this was the time of year to actually be at the park. It was mostly because of its lack of crowds and the lack of the hasty atmosphere that many have come to associate with the park when they come in the Summer.

Of course driving the old car meant we had to leave the AC off when the car was climbing (not a problem since it was Winter) and having to worry about undetected problems that might leave us stranded hundreds of miles from help. I was also concerned the car might struggle to start in the cold weather.

Anyhow, we pressed on hoping for the best...

Fortunately, we made it into the park at around 3:30pm. Shortly after we bought the National Parks Pass at the window, we were told we had to line up behind those cars just to the right of the turnoff for the Mariposa Grove (which was closed for the season).

Apparently, there had been an automobile accident on Hwy 41 so we had to wait it out. There wasn't a whole lot of snow in the area so I imagined there was probably even less snow in the Valley since we were higher in elevation.

Finally at 4:30pm, the people started their engines and it was time to move. Being that the sun was quickly setting, Julie and I went to chase Horsetail Falls. So we headed straight for to the Northside Drive west of Yosemite Lodge in search of the pullouts for the ephemeral waterfall.

The western part of the valley floor lacked snow. The cliffs and higher elevations still had snow. Bridalveil Fall was flowing as well as Ribbon Falls. Smaller waterfalls like Sentinel Falls were frozen. The park had an eerily dead feel to it as the meadows were brown and many of the trees lacked leaves.

The driving in the Valley wasn't as trivial as we thought because of the way they rearranged the flow of traffic, which always seems to change outside the summer season. Eventually, we would show up at one of the familiar unsigned pullouts. The pullout was full of cars - apparently, many others were seeking the same thing we were going for.

There was still about another 45 minutes before the sunset. So we took this time to scramble around the forest looking for the familiar clearings to get an unobstructed view of the falls.

To our surprise, we saw a large group of photographers on their lawn chairs with their cameras mounted on tripods already pointed at the falls. Waiting out the event, many had cans of beer and were overall in a pretty jolly mood.

To me it seemed like we had stumbled upon a secret society of photographers eagerly awaiting some divine event. One of the ladies who thought the way I did said to us, "No password necessary?"

As Julie and I positioned ourselves to get a clean view of the falls, we managed to pass the time talking to a park employee. His story was memorable because he originally started out intending only to volunteer for a Summer. He ended up still employed and living in the park going on three years!

Horsetail Falls just before Sunset As we looked up at Horsetail Falls, we could see that the plume of water was glowing a whitish yellow. Clearly the sun's light was still too harsh to cast that firefall effect. But to see a strand of water being lit up as it went down the cliff was still an interesting sight.

Horsetail Falls starting to go orangeFinally, it was 5:30pm and the sun was clearly setting with its last rays of light squarely on just the profile of Horsetail Falls. We could see the color of the water change from a ghostly white to a bright orange. Everyone there was busy snapping photos as often as they could until the sun's rays gave way to shadows.

Horsetail Falls playing the role of the natural firefall One thing that really struck me was how the silence of the valley was only broken by the occasional echo of someone shouting or a vehicle starting. Of all the times I had been to Yosemite Valley, I never recalled being able to hear an echo in the valley. Perhaps this is what makes Yosemite in the winter so charming...

Afterwards, we checked into one of the cabins at Curry Village and went to dinner. We ended up eating at one of the upscale dining halls in Yosemite Lodge (I forget its name), which was pricey but pretty decent considering its location.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, though walking around Curry Village was a little tricky considering there was ice and snow all over the ground.

At least we went to sleep knowing we chased down the firefall on Horsetail Falls. The rest of what we would see on this trip was just icing on the cake.

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It was about 7am when Julie and I woke up. The sun just started to scrape the highest cliffs with its soft light. There was still snow on Stoneman Meadow. Ice and snow clung to the vertical cliff walls surrounding us - occasionally giving into gravity, crackling and crashing with a loud echoing boom. I kept thinking to myself that I wouldn't want to be caught under one of those!

We really didn't have an agenda for today. So what we ended up doing was meandering about the valley (self-driving, of course) going to the usual haunts where we knew there'd be viewpoints of our favorite waterfalls.

Swinging Bridge view of Yosemite Falls in the Winter First up was Swinging Bridge. The Merced River, which must be frigid this time of day, was very calm and reflected Yosemite Falls and its snow cone. Shadows dominated the scene, but the low morning light was right on the tall waterfall that looked like it was just starting to pick up flow that would continue increasing from now until its peak flow probably around May.

Lower Yosemite Fall in winter flow with rainbow Like yesterday afternoon, it was nice and quiet here. Although it was bitterly cold, that got us thinking about the snow flanking Yosemite Falls. I don't think I had ever seen a waterfall with snow piling up near its bottom like we were seeing with Upper Yosemite Falls. I wondered if that was the snow cone that was talked about in your Yosemite Road Guide.

Yosemite Falls from Cooks Meadow After we had our fill of Swinging Bridge, we next went to the car park near Cook Meadow. At this time of year, we could see that the meadow was pretty much brown as the grass had yet to grow. We knew that in the Spring and early Summer, this meadow would flourish with green grass and wildflowers with a gushing Yosemite Falls backing the scene. But as it was during our visit, the scene looked a bit harsh and bare, though the morning light was perfect.

Lower Yosemite Fall in winter flow with rainbow After having our fill Cooks Meadow, we then continued towards Yosemite Lodge. Given that it was low season, we didn't have much difficulty finding parking around the lodge area. Then, we proceeded to do the well-developed walk towards the base of Yosemite Falls, culminating at a lookout area next to a bridge over Yosemite Creek. And that was where we saw the familiar Lower Falls but the lighting was just right for a faint morning rainbow stretching across its base.

Next, we decided to check out the Ahwahnee Hotel. I had never set foot in this building thinking it was too posh and inappropriate for a place where Nature should reign supreme. But I had a different attitude towards the place when I learned that Stephen Mather - the park's first superintendent - wanted the place built to attract the wealthy and influential people to the park. This bit of foresight helped bring conservation into the conscience of politicians and businessmen, and ultimately furthered the cause of preserving Yosemite as well as the rest of the National Parks. With that I came to accept such structures as a natural and necessary part of the National Park heritage.

Situated near the Royal Arch Cascade (when it's flowing), the rustic hotel had a very large dining hall with gaudy chandeliers and high ceilings. It was only brunch, but I could totally see how this could be a really romantic place for fine dining at night. Nearby was a big "living room" area with balconies, a fireplace, plenty of couches, and some Native American artifacts protected behind glass. It was quite a place to relax and read a book, or take a nap in the rustic setting.

After our brief little self tour in the Ahwahnee, we returned to Curry Village and started taking the shuttle towards the Mirror Lake stop. The shuttle went straight for the Mirror Lake stop since the usual stops that passed by the Happy Isles were inaccessible this time of year due to ice. Since there would be no stop in front of Happy Isles at this time of year so that added a little bit to the overall walk.

We first headed for Vernal Fall. The hike to the waterfall was quite tricky due to the presence of ice everywhere.

We were glad we had hiking sticks and boots with us but it was still not easy walking.

Vernal Fall in Winter Eventually, we got to the Mist Trail, where many hikers bypassed the closure signs. We actually went a little bit past the closure sign along the icy trail to the Lady Franklin Rock vicinity.

Given the presence of snow, we were able to scramble towards the rocky bed below Lady Franklin Rock. The rock itself was inaccessible as it was covered in ice.

Me before Vernal Fall in winter From here, we saw two other photographers getting shots of Vernal Fall. It was quite unusual to see the waterfall like this with snow on the floor. Nevertheless, I'd say it was worth the slipping and sliding to get here.

After having our fill of this waterfall, we started to head back to the Happy Isles Nature Center. However, I was amazed at how many hikers continued up the John Muir Trail despite all the ice on the trail.

Back at Happy Isles, we opted to walk directly back to Curry Village, where we had a quick pizza lunch.

The partially frozen Mirror Lake Afterwards, we hopped back on the shuttle and headed to Mirror Lake. From there, it was an easy walk to the partially frozen "lake." The ice kind of obscured some of the mirror-like reflections, but the scene was still serene and picturesque just like when we first saw it three years ago.

After the brief excursion, we returned to the shuttle and then headed for Bridalveil Fall. I hadn't been to the base of this waterfall since 2002, but now it was late afternoon and the time was right for rainbows.

View of Bridalveil Fall from across the river Anyways, on the way over there, we made a stop at the Bridalveil Fall view from across the Merced. The late afternoon light against the blue skies were attractive, though the Merced River that ran across the foreground remained in shadow and also flanked by snow.

Bridalveil Fall seen from the car park The car park at the waterfall was icy and also busy. Right off the bat, we could see a rainbow cutting across the white plumge of water as we looked in the direction of Bridalveil Fall between the trees. That only hastened our desire to get to the base as soon as we could while the sun was still up.

We managed to park the car then quickly take the short walk to its base. We managed to get through some of the tricky icy sections of the paved walk before we were at the base of Bridalveil Fall.

the base of Bridalveil Fall in the winter We were greeted with a gorgeous rainbow in its mist, but unfortunately that mist also made it hard to take photos. Even with its light flow, photographing the waterfall from here was challenging. It was strange to see the flowing column of water bordered by white ice clinging to the walls around it. It kind of framed the waterfall in a weird way as if it had put a skirt on.

Anyhow, we weren't able to take any satisfactory photos with the rainbow, but it was quite an experience to be back at the base of the waterfall. When the rainbow disappeared and the soft orange glow of sunset gave way to shadows, it was time to head back to Curry Village.

We returned to Curry Village in time for their somewhat reasonably-priced buffet. It had ordinary food, but it was quite busy for a not-so-busy season in the park. In addition to the Valley's day visitors, many others had returned from skiing at Badger Pass.

When the dinner was about over, a local live band called the Rock Slide performed a mix of country western and blues. It was quite cool to see kids and elders doing a western swing dance to the likes of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams. Even Julie and I got into the mood and joined them - trying to somehow fit our East Coast Swing basics into the Country Western Swing that better fit the occasion.

Even through the slipping and sliding adventure on the John Muir Trail, the day was very relaxing. It really gave us the chance to quietly appreciate the soothing silence of winter in the valley - broken only by the occasional crashing sounds of ice and snow that were unable to cling to the vertical cliffs.

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After another peaceful evening in the warm Curry Village cabin, it was time to load up the car and head for home. My only concern was being unable to start the car considering how cold it was.

As Julie was checking out, I packed the car and gave it a start. It struggled to crank a couple of times, but it did eventually start so I let it sit for a few minutes to warm up.

When Julie finally walked to the car, she told me how Curry Village tried to charge the full price instead of the discounted price we had called about prior to the trip. I think she eventually settled it, but I had to keep an eye on my credit card to make sure I wasn't overcharged. You never know with these things...

And so we finally made it home by 2pm. Waiting at home was the DSLR I wished we had on this trip. Bother! Oh well, we'll have to try it out on the next trip...

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