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Yosemite's 'Firefall' draws crowds from across the globe to witness the magnificent spectacle

Posted at 1:40 PM, Mar 02, 2022

YOSEMITE, Calif. — Cloaked in a cape of white, a certain stillness sits over Yosemite National Park as a fresh coating of snow blankets the landscape, as tourists from across the globe descend on this National Park in hopes of catching a rare natural phenomenon.

While the snow helps mask the scars of the fires which so often ravage these 747,000 federally protected acres, it is fires of a much different nature that are drawing the masses here as the seasons change.

Under the shadow of El Capitan, Ken Mueller is unpacking his camera gear and a great deal of patience. The 74-year-old man, his wife and camera have crossed the globe taking pictures.

“I’ve been coming to Yosemite for 50 years,” Mueller said as he slowly pieced together a small camping chair.

But there is one photo that has alluded Mueller for more than a decade: a picture of Yosemite’s rare natural illusion known as the "Firefall."

“Over 11 years, I think this is the twelth day I’ve tried to photograph it,” he said.

Mueller began setting up his gear around noon on a recent Wednesday. When clear blue skies and melting snow drove hundreds of other people to the park.

“It’s a natural phenomenon and it only happens a couple of weeks every year,” Mueller added.

Amateur photographers, professional photographers, and tourists soon began to surround Ken Mueller.

Their attention was fixated on what looked like a small trickle of water coming down from the top of El Capitan. This 3,000-foot section of granite is officially known as Horsetail Falls. During the waning days of February though, it’s simply called the Firefall.

“It’s hard to believe it’s just something happening naturally,” said photographer David Soldano, who traveled to California from Colorado Springs to witness the event.

The Firefall is only visible during the last two weeks of February. Even then, conditions have to be just right to witness this rarest of natural displays.

It all happens because the angle of the sun has moved far enough north for the light at sunset to enter the canyon in front of El Capitan. While canyon walls block a majority of the sun, just enough light sneaks through to illuminate the fall's orange.

“If that waterfall wasn’t in that exact place, it wouldn’t work,” Soldano added.

The entire event has become a huge economic driver for the park during an otherwise sleepy season.

“This is a real boom to the business in the region who desperately need this in the wintertime,” said Brooke Smith with Visit Yosemite.

This spectacle though, however grand, has become a paradox of popularity for the park and surrounding areas. In 2021, overcrowding of a riverbank by El Capitan collapsed under the weight of crowds.

“The National Park Service had to put parameters into place so people could experience it in a safe way and not damaging the ecosystem of the park,” Smith said.

All of this, though, does very little to diminish the spectacle which is put on display here. When the perfect combination of angles and golden light finally gave Ken Mueller that picture he’s been hunting for more than a decade.

“Persistence really pays off,” Mueller said as he snapped away with his camera and the sun finally set.

In a day and an age where it is often hard to see the beauty in this world, the Firefall is serving as a reminder from Mother Nature that even in the darkness there is light.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”