Rare Autumn ‘Firefall’ Comes Alive in Yosemite National Park

A view of the winter Firefall. Photo by Katie Rodriguez 

Every year in early February, visitors flock to Yosemite National Park to witness the stunning ‘Firefall’ natural phenomenon. The event has become a viral sensation for its spectacular views and one that creates a whirlwind of activity in the park each winter.

Did you know the Firefall is also possible in October? Yes, it’s true. The sunlight hits the same spot during this time of year and when rare fall precipitation come to Yosemite, like the recent category 5 atmospheric river, the Firefall comes alive for an autumn viewing like no other.

The Firefall appears when there is water flowing from Horsetail Falls, which is typically a low-flow waterfall year round. In years when there is a lot of early-season precipitation in the mountains, the waterfall will burst to life and give onlookers the show of a lifetime in the form of what looks to be a waterfall on fire. If there’s no water, there’s no Firefall.

In October 2021, with plenty of water flowing through the park, visitors were greeted with a rare chance to see the Firefall in the autumn. Photographer Scott Oller rushed to the waterfall to see if it would come alive. Sure enough, he found this spectacular scene:

Here’s what Oller said about his experience on Instagram:

when the atmospheric river blew through northern california last weekend, a spark of an idea popped into my head. i remembered reading somewhere that the famous yosemite “firefall” phenomenon in february is technically possible in october every year too, as the sun passes through the same position. but it’s never happened in recent memory, since it would require a rare massive autumn storm to get horsetail fall flowing again. well, we got that massive storm. i checked the sun’s position against the february dates and realized there were only a couple days left in the firefall window. the waterfalls were flowing again in yosemite. the weather looked favorable. i had to go for it.

yesterday, i was able to get a half-day off work, and nervously left san francisco at 1pm, with juuust enough time to get to yosemite before sunset. the valley was stunning, with roaring waterfalls and peak fall foliage. i spotted a rainbow in bridalveil fall, then made my way to a spot east of el cap and set up my camera shortly before the natural light show began. there was only one other photographer nearby, and a few lucky tourists who had spotted the firefall from the road, but it was nothing like the crowds of february. for 15 minutes, horsetail fall glowed in fiery hues, framed by foliage of the same colors. it actually happened.

i can’t believe everything worked out. i don’t know if there will be another fall firefall in my lifetime.

Truly a remarkable experience for anyone who witnessed it! It’s still possible that another dry winter could hinder the February viewing of the Firefall, so this may have been the only opportunity to see it this year. Hopefully, that’s not the case. With a heavy winter, this winter’s Firefall could be one of the best seen in years. Let’s hope we get A LOT more views of the stunning natural phenomenon this winter.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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