Fact Check

Is the 'Firefall' Real?

Images of a "fire waterfall" or "firefall" in California's Yosemite National Park have more than one explanation.

Published Jul 26, 2010

For a couple of weeks each February, Horsetail waterfall in California’s Yosemite National Park appears to be set ablaze by the setting sun, a fleeting evening spectacle known as the “firefall.”

 (Flickr/Jay Huang)
Image Via Flickr/Jay Huang
Photographs show a "fire waterfall" at Yosemite National Park.

Hauntingly beautiful images of a "fire waterfall" or "firefall" in California's Yosemite National Park appear to be photographs of two similar but distinctly different phenomena, one natural and one man-made.

"A rare sight!! Yosemite National Park, California, USA. This park was gazetted as a national park in 1890. It is world famous for its rugged terrain, waterfall and century-old pine trees. It covers 1200 sq km and the "fire" waterfall of El Capitan is one of the most spectacular of all scenery.

The spectacular view of the waterfall is created by the reflection of sunlight hitting the falling water at a specific angle. This rare sight can only be seen at a 2-week period towards the end of February. To photograph this rare event, photographers would often have to wait and endure years of patience in order to capture them. The reason is because its appearance depend on a few natural phenomenons occuring at the same time and luck.

1st, Is the formation of the waterfall - The water is formed by the melting of snow and ice at the top of the mountain. It melts between the month of December and January and by the end of February there might not have much snow left to melt.

2nd, is the specific angle of the sunray hitting the falling water - The sun's position must be exactly at a particular spot in the sky. This occurs only in the month of February and at the short hours of dusk. If it is a day full of clouds or something blocking the sun, you can only take pictures of your own sorry faces on the waterfall. It coincides with the fact that the weather in the National Park at that time of the year is often volatile and unpredictable. It compounds the difficulty of getting these pictures. Someone did and we all get to see it."

The effect is a natural one ("Nature's Firefall") which some photographers have managed to capture spectacular images of by snapping photos of Yosemite's Horsetail Fall at just the right time of day, under just the right conditions, at a particular time of year:

"During the winter in Yosemite, coming off of El Capitan, there is an almost non-existent waterfall called Horsetail Fall. During the last two weeks in February, if there is water trickling over the edge, and if it is clear at sunset (which doesn't happen too often due to the winter storms) the setting sun will turn this waterfall into a stream of molten fire. The waterfall lights up like molten lava due to the angle of the sun."


Metro.   "'Rainbow' Roses Are All the Rage."     6 February 2007.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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