The Legend of Yosemite’s Fabled “Firefalls”

Yes, that's a flaming waterfall. Here's how they did it.

February 21, 2019 9:00 am

Yosemite’s natural “firefall” is back this week, and should continue through the weekend. 

Thanks to a perfect combination of factors — the unique angle the sun sets over the park in late February, clear skies, just enough precipitation — Horsetail Fall appears aglow with careening lava just before dusk. To see it for yourself, you’d better hustle to the park. Bring chains for your tires and gear to hike to an ideal vantage point

To read the bizarre history of Yosemite’s artifical firefalls, see below. 

If you visited Yosemite National Park before January 25, 1968, lucky you.

Because that’s the day the Park officially called quits on a nightly phenomenon that dazzled visitors for nearly 100 years: the fabled Yosemite firefalls, aka a blazing stream of fire and ashes that would pour some 3,200 feet from Glacier Point into the valley below.

Most likely, you would have witnessed this from there, or from Curry Village, a camp that still stands today. Throughout the late 1800s and into the 20th century, travelers at Curry Village would hold nightly talent shows and musicals, and then, at 9 P.M. sharp, the master of ceremonies would bellow up towards the mountaintop, “Hello Glacier Point!”

Up at Glacier Point, where the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel was perched, a man would holler back: “Hello Camp Curry!”

“Is the fire ready?”

“The fire is ready!”

“Let the fire fall!”

“The fire falls!”

And fall it would, down the giant rock in a streaming cascade of sparks and flames and ashes that looked like something straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

The tradition started in 1872. James McCauley, then owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House, would set up a big fire for his guests every night. At the end of the night, he’d kick the smoldering embers of Red Fir over the edge.

People saw it below and became transfixed. Requests poured in asking him to do it again. And he did, for 25 years, until it was stopped by the National Park Service. It resumed in 1917 but was again discontinued during the World War II. After the War, visitors pressured the National Park Service into resurrecting it, and they did. It was a hit.

But it was also a source of constant rubbernecking and traffic jams — people would literally stop their cars in the middle of the road to decamp for the meadows surrounding the valley so they could watch the event. Finally, in 1968, Park Director George Hertzog banned the firefalls for good, citing that it was more fit for Disneyland. The parks, he concluded, should be enjoyed for their natural wonders … not to mention the risks of forest fires the spectacle posed.

But it turns out that there’s another, natural firefall at Yosemite: for two weeks in February every year, the sun sets over Horsetail Falls in such a way that the cascade glows like it’s on fire.

As for the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel: it burned down in an electrical fire in 1969 — a blaze that was accelerated by unused stores of Red Fir.

Apparently history has a sense of humor.

Originally published August 25th, 2016


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