Horsetail Fall—Flashback to Yosemite Firefalls

Man-made Firefalls

“Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain…”

The seven-mile-long, one-mile-wide Yosemite Valley arguably contains more extraordinary scenic wonders than any other 7 square mile patch on Planet Earth. Even so, it seems like Mother Nature cannot keep herself from blatant superfluousness.

A quick glance at this photo may even remind older viewers of Yosemite’s man-made “firefalls.”

Yosemite firefalls were summer-time events that began in 1872 and continued for almost a century. Burning hot wood and embers were spilled from the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park to the valley 3,000 feet below. From a distance it appeared as a glowing waterfall. The owners of the Glacier Point Hotel conducted the firefall. History has it that David Curry, founder of Curry Village, would stand at the base of the fall, and yell “Let the fire fall,” each night as a signal to start pushing the embers over.

The firefalls ended in January 1968, when the National Park Service ordered them stopped because the overwhelming number of visitors that they attracted trampled meadows to see them, and because they were not a natural event. NPS wanted to preserve the Valley, returning it to its natural state. The Glacier Point Hotel was destroyed by fire one year later and was not rebuilt.

Horsetail Falls
Horsetail Falls

But Horsetail Fall is not man-made. It is a wonder that can only happen when environmental conditions are perfect. The sun’s angle of inclination is critical and only happens on a few days in late February. The weather has to be clear and there must be an adequate water supply spilling off the north wall of Yosemite Valley, east of El Capitan. Not surprisingly, favorable days often attract hordes of photographers trying to capture the perfect photo.

In a very strange synchronicity, I was taking a graduate biology class that spent one week in Yosemite during the summer of 1967. We viewed the “Fire fall” with no foreknowledge that it would be the last summer of the event and I would later lead 24 classes to Yosemite NP.  God, may not only be superfluous, He often moves in very mysterious ways.

Lowell H. Young
Author: Biodesign Out For A Walk