Yosemite’s elusive firefall: February 2021

Saturday February 20, 2021

From lemons , we opt to make lemonade.  This particular week, for the past 10 years, has always been spoken for on our calendar and dedicated to attending the Sedona International Film Festival. When it was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic, we had already requested the time off, opening up other possibilities.

I don’t know when I first became aware of the Yosemite firefall phenomenon but I knew the timing was good for a try to see and photograph it. Certainly, Instagram has made it much more widely known in recent years.  In the 1990s, we did a workshop with famed landscape photographer Galen Rowell, who was the first to photograph the firefall in color in 1973, so maybe the seed of this quest was planted way back then. It requires a convergence of the right conditions at this time of year, so is not a certainty, but Yosemite at any time is magical.  We’ve probably been to Yosemite 5 times before but it had been too long since the last time-maybe 2002?  We had only been once in winter to Yosemite Valley,  also back in the 1990s, when we were young and fit enough to cross country ski.

A few days before departure, a check on the Internet suggested the firefall was happening this year, indicating the necessary pre-conditions were present, namely sufficient winter snowfall to feed Horsetail Falls on El Capitan, which is formed by snowmelt. It is a seasonal, sparse waterfall, which is not very impressive visually except when it is lit up at a certain angle by the last rays of sunset, which happens only two weeks of the year, centered around February 21.  Even when there is sufficient snowpack to feed the falls, the temperature must be warm enough for the falls to run.

Firefall refers to the glowing lava appearance of Horsetail Falls on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park which happens around February 21 every year when a host of conditions occur in synch for the falls to run and be backlit by the setting sun. This natural occurrence harkens back to an earlier, nearly century long Yosemite tradition, discontinued in 1968, in which this appearance was created by shoving burning embers from a bonfire over the side of a 3000 foot granite face by the owners of a hotel at Glacier Point.

Assuming those conditions are met, the photographer has to hope that there aren’t too many clouds or too strong of wind at sunset to obscure the phenomenon, which lights the falls up to resemble a glowing lava flow.

We managed an 11 am departure, with the car so fully laden one would think we were permanently relocating: two large rolling duffels with cold weather gear, two camera backpacks, two tripods, one large Yeti cooler packed with food, and one large white plastic box filled with temperature stable food and snacks.

Stopping off for lunch provisions at Darshan, our friend Joe’s son James surprised us by managing to recognize us despite being masked and it having been a full year since we last saw him.

We were pleasantly surprised by the drive, which was more varied and attractive than expected.  The traffic through LA was still pandemic and weekend-tamed.  There were rolling hills north of LA and fields and more fields of flowering almonds trees near Bakersfield.

Our 5:30 pm arrival at Chateau du Sureau outside Yosemite was just early and still light enough to take a brief spin through the attractive grounds of the Chateau et Relais property, which is a small French country style inn.

A yummy miniature bundt cake under a glass dome was waiting in the room, as well as a bottle of Coquelicot red wine.   

At the Elderberry restaurant on the premises, we opted for the 3 course dinner ($70).  I elected the crab cake starter and Steve, the beet root salad.  Steve enjoyed the duck entrée.  I ended up with 2 entrées, the server having misheard my choice of dover scallops as risotto.  After whisking  away the jerusaleum artichoke risotto, he shortly reappeared with it, saying I might as well have a taste while my scallops were being prepared.  It was delicious, maybe even better than the scallops.  A winter berry galette finished off a nice meal.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

We had a late 9:30 am 2 course breakfast, with fresh orange juice and coffee.  We shared the cheese and meat plate and the lemon curd tartlet starters, followed by a ham and scrambled egg pastry roll with mushroom sauce.

From that luxurious launching pad, we had only a 1.5 hour drive to the park, stopping only at the Tunnel View overlook and pausing in a short line of cars entering the park.

The Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley after emerging from the tunnel burrowed through solid rock is gasp-inducing. This was taken later in the week in the afternoon, when the moon had risen.

Our room wasn’t ready, so we picnicked on the sunny and warm patio of the Ahwahnee.  I added long johns under my pants in the restroom. The concierge suggested traffic might be enough of a snarl to make walking from the hotel preferable to driving.  Walking to the viewing area, east of the El Capitan picnic area off the Northside Drive, added 2 miles each way to the 1.5 mile hike from the suggested parking place near Yosemite Lodge (a total of 7 level miles).

It did not disappoint:

Firefall, February 21, 2021: Shooting firefall in Yosemite is a “set up and wait” situation. There are enough other people, chairs and tripods that it requires staking one’s real estate claim early. Since the falls are high overhead, photographers are able to shoot over the heads of others right in front of them, analogous to shooting an eclipse. There are relatively few gaps in the trees through which the falls can be seen without overlying foliage, which tends to concentrate the photographers into clumps centered on gaps in the trees.

Yosemite’s February firefall is a transient phenomenon, almost more impressive in photos than in person, but still fun to pursue. When it happens, it lasts as long as 13 minutes during the waning minutes of sunset. Our first day, February 21, was predicted by the Park Service to be the “Absolute Best Day”, with the following evening “Better than Very, Very Good (But not Absolute Best)”.

It was warm enough going to carry our coats, but we were glad to have them for the return, in the dark, by headlamp and moonlight, with a continuous stream of spectators.

Not a solitary nature experience, an expectant crowd waiting for firefall camps out in Yosemite National Park.

There was a large and festive but generally well-behaved and masked crowd, the biggest group of people we’ve been in since the pandemic started.  One lane of the Northside Drive was blocked off to allow pedestrians to use half the road. The navigation back by moonlight in the dark was tricky after the crowd thinned.

Monday, February 22, 2021

We were up at 6 am in the dark, to leave fully bundled up (this time with heated insoles in my snow boots and thicker socks) by 6:30 am.  We aimed to be at the Tunnel viewpoint by sunrise at 7 am.  The sunrise itself was a placid one, with the sun lighting up first the top edge and then creeping down the length of El Capitan.

We made several stops along the Southside Drive on the way back which were more productive.  Steve was chilled and mostly stayed in the car as I popped out, zipped my coat, covered my face with my mask and my ears with a fleece cap and hoisted my backpack on.  The towering granite walls of El Capitan were glowing in the still reflections off the curving undulations of the Merced River.

Winter morning, with El Capitan reflected in the Merced River, smoothed with a neutral density (ND) filter and exposure equalized between foreground and background with a 3-stop split ND filter.

Winter morning, with Upper Yosemite falls reflected in the Merced River, smoothed with a neutral density (ND) filter and exposure equalized between foreground and background with a 3-stop split ND filter.

Winter morning, with Upper Yosemite falls reflected in the Merced River, smoothed with a neutral density (ND) filter and exposure equalized between foreground and background with a 3-stop split ND filter.

We decided to shave off some of the walk to the firefall by driving part of the way.  As we departed the parking lot, a herd of 6 mule deer sauntered through.  A bold coyote made an appearance at the beginning of our walk from Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Steve’s heavenly version of firefall at Yosemite (February 22, 2021). Even before the final minutes of sunset, Horsetail Falls was aglow with the late afternoon sun.

Round two firefall was less well attended but equally exuberant.  I chatted with a retired home economics teacher from the Bay Area, while Steve, on the road a little further east, conversed with a NICU nurse and a former ER doctor now doing hyperbaric therapy.  The former home economics teacher and her husband had come from the Bay Area on the urging of their daughter, a ranger in the park.  He sat closer to the road on a rock, while she declined my offer of a spell on my collapsable chair, saying she had been a public school teacher and had already had a lifetimes’ worth of sitting. Their daughter joined them later, visiting with her father first and then coming over to her mother to relate this reaction of her father to the spectacle:

“It’s not the toilet!”

This caused me to glance over, puzzled.

After the daughter made her way back over to where her dad was sitting, my neighbor explained that after years of living in their house, one year they suddenly noticed a toilet was glowing with a heavenly radiance, apparently the result of an unusual, seasonal angle of the sun.  Although they’d lived there for 10 years already before witnessing this phenomenon, each year thereafter at the same time of year, the same unearthly glow recurred.

I laughed out loud and wondered if she had a picture  of this vision.  Sadly, she didn’t have one with her.

Firefall round 2: February 22, 2021, with a wider angle lens (16-55mm) than the 100-400 mm lens I used the prior day.

Our pleasure at witnessing and sharing this elusive phenomenon was tempered by learning that as of today, there have been 500,000 American deaths to date from Covid-19, more than killed in WW I, WW II and the Vietnam Wars combined.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Our first day at the Ahwahnee made us realize how meager was the Internet signal.  I was scheduled to participate in a meeting with CureMetrix clients in Brazil this morning.  After trying for almost half a day to upload a firefall picture to social media, it was clear having a Zoom meeting with video wouldn’t work.

I love the imposing lobby of the Ahwahnee Hotel. The hotel is decorated with framed vintage Turkish kilims from the original decor of the hotel.

I inquired at the desk if this was the situation throughout the valley or if the signal was stringer in the business center or lobby.  The reply was no, Internet was iffy throughout the Valley and the staff usually drove to Degnan’s Deli when they really needed the Internet.  After conferring with Mitul, I decided my best option was to call in.

In the afternoon, we hiked 1.6 miles to Mirror Lake from the hotel, a mostly level walk, sunny and crisp, with patches of snow on the trail to negotiate but nothing too hairy.

Mirror Lake, a 1.6 mile mostly level walk from the Ahwahnee Hotel, is well named.

Mirror Lake panorama, Yosemite Valley.

As the afternoon progressed and the light began to improve, we headed out in the car to shoot. We had decided against a 3rd evening of shooting the firefall, preferring to train our lenses on other scenes.  We had already struck gold on the “Absolute Best Day” and the “Better than Very, Very Good (But not Absolute Best)” two evenings in a row, with this evening predicted by the Park Service to be only “Pretty Good”.

Afternoon light makes the granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley glow, as reflected in the Merced River.

Steve noticed the rainbow colors of Bridalveil Falls, while I was concentrating on the larger scene above.

On our walks to the firefall on the preceding evenings, I had looked with regret at the scenes we were hurrying past, with the granite cliffs reflecting in the Merced River.

A tough scene to walk past, while hoofing it toward firefall, as the setting sun lights up the south side of Yosemite Valley, reflected in the Merced River.

Steve dropped me off on the route to firefall.  Almost reflexively, I found myself walking at maximal, fully loaded speed in lockstep with people walking towards firefall.  Then, pausing to fasten my waist belt, I glanced at my watch: 6 minutes after 5 pm.  I looked at the ridge and couldn’t even begin to see the end of El Capitan or Horsetail Fall.  I wasn’t sure I would make it in time.  Brought up short, I remembered passing by the lovely light on the opposite side of the Valley, with reflections in the water.  We already had two great firefall evenings under our belts. I turned around and started hoofing it back in the opposite direction, startling one young woman enough to ask:

“Can I ask why you’re going the other way?

Me: “I have another shot in mind.”

Puzzled pedestrian: “Is the view (of firefall) not worth it??.”

Me:  “It’s worth it, if you make it in time.  But you’d better make tracks if you want to see it.”

I think it was worth turning in the opposite direction:

After photographing firefall for 2 consecutive sunsets, I trained my lens in the opposite direction for our 3rd and last sunset in Yosemite Valley.

For our final night, we pre-ordered dinner from the Ahwahnee restaurant. I take back every disparaging remark I’ve ever made about food in National Parks, this was a really delicious send-off meal of savory roast chicken, with buttery polenta, roasted carrots, cipollino onions and parsnips.  Steve and I fondly remembered dining in the grand dining room decades ago.  Pandemic-style dining was restricted to take-out, with patrons free to seat themselves in the capacious dining room, lobby, on the patios or in their rooms.  It had taken us a pandemic, a postponed film festival, the hope of catching firefall and nearly 20 years to return to the world’s most famous glacier-scoured valley in winter, but it was worth the wait, making us fall in love with California all over again.


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