Photographing the Firefall at Yosemite

Firefall 2010

Firefall 2010 was spectacular; all photos by James Kaiser

For a certain type of traveler, it’s all about the chase. And seeing – and successfully photographing – a natural phenomenon that requires ideal weather conditions is about as tough as it gets. James Kaiser has spent the past 10 days in Yosemite National Park blogging about his experience trying to photograph the Firefall, which occurs in late February when the setting sun illuminates Horsetail Fall in Yosemite Valley. When everything goes just right, the waterfall will glow orange and red for about 10 minutes, creating one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. It literally looks like a cascading waterfall of fire, hence the name Firefall.

Firefall 2011

The closest James Kaiser came to witnessing the Firefall in 2011.

Last year, Kaiser, author of Yosemite: The Complete Guide, saw the Firefall and was able to capture it on film, as you can see above. This year he hasn’t been so lucky… Here he tells Travelogged all about his quest to see the Firefall in 2011 and why everyone needs to visit Yosemite.

So no Firefall for you this year, huh?

Unfortunately, my quest to photograph the Firefall this year has not gone well. If the sun isn’t shining, the waterfall won’t light up. For the past nine days, I’ve contended with rain, snow and clouds. Even on days that started out perfectly clear, clouds moved in around sunset, ruining the shot. That said, a big snowstorm turned Yosemite into a winter wonderland last week, and I took some of the best winter shots I’ve ever taken (see below). So, even though I haven’t seen the Firefall this year, it’s still been an amazing trip, photography-wise.

But last year’s Firefall trip was much better right?

Last year’s Firefall was definitely better for me, because I actually saw it! Of course, I waited for a full week before I finally got the shot. This year, the Firefall lit up the day before I arrived, but nothing’s happened since then. That’s what makes it so special. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see it. So when you do finally see the Firefall, it feels like you’ve won the lottery.

El Capitan

El Capitan in Yosemite

How many people came to see it this year?

There were hundreds of people trying to photograph the Firefall this year. On Presidents’ Day Weekend, the parking areas near the popular viewpoints were packed. It definitely seemed like there were more people than last year. I talked to photographers who flew in from Switzerland and Japan. As photos of the Firefall have spread around the world, it’s become more and more famous.

Will you try again in 2012?
I would love to return next year. The Firefall is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. I would love to be able to photograph it again.

What’s your top tip for people attempting to photograph the Firefall?

Be lucky! Also, use a tripod and a powerful lens. (See more of James’ Firefall photography tips here.)

Yosemite Tunnel View

The famous "Tunnel View" at Yosemite National Park

What makes Yosemite so special?

Yosemite is one of the crown jewels of the national park system because it’s home to the most dramatic alpine scenery in America. There are 3,000 foot cliffs, 2,000-foot waterfalls, glaciers, meadows, lakes — you name it. And let’s not forget the giant sequoias — the largest living things on Earth!

What do you recommend that a first-time visitor see at Yosemite?

No matter when you visit Yosemite, the best thing to see is Yosemite Valley. It’s just spectacular. Although the Valley is tiny — just one mile long by seven miles wide — it’s home to dozens of waterfalls, including three of the tallest waterfalls in the U.S. Head over to Tunnel View and you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular views in the world.

What’s your favorite part of the park?

My favorite part of the park is the High Sierra, which is the alpine wilderness above 8,000 feet. It’s home to some of the best hiking and backpacking in North America.

Learn more about the Firefall on James Kaiser’s website, Firefall Yosemite.

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8 Responses to Photographing the Firefall at Yosemite

  1. Danee Gilmartin
    Twitter: museumchick
    February 26, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    I’ve been wanting to see Yosemite. You wouldn’t think it should be so difficult considering the distance I’ve traveled to other countries but I still haven’t made it! One day…
    Also, I really love the photo, El Capitan in Yosemite!
    Danee Gilmartin recently posted..Art Word of the Day- Rosso Antico

  2. Jack - eyeflare travel
    Twitter: eyeflare
    February 27, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    That would be one awesome experience photographically. Sorry you didn’t get to catch it this time.
    Jack – eyeflare travel recently posted..The Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle- Cumbria

  3. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World March 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    Yosemite is no doubt our favorite place on earth (so far). We’re so lucky to live a mere 4 hours away. Beautiful pic of the Firefall!
    Jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..Akila and Patrick from The Road Forks — Meet A Traveling Couple

  4. Jason
    Twitter: alpaca_suitcase
    March 4, 2011 at 5:53 am #

    Nice photos and great story. I remember seeing the firefall as a kid. I actually thought that they stopped it; nice to know it’s still around.
    Jason recently posted..Juanita The Ice Princess of Arequipa

  5. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler March 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Scott and I were planning to be in Yosemite on President’s weekend this year, but we were not able to make it! I hope to catch this amazing view someday!
    Christy @ Ordinary Traveler recently posted..Photo of the Week- Flying Fox Hanging Out in Sydney

  6. StefanoPedroni March 14, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Part of the beauty of being a photographer is that you don’t know whether you are going to take the shot home or not, and expecially when the subject is nature, so unpredictable…. Well it seems that even if you didn’t get the shot you wanted you got some amazing pics of Yosemite in the snow, so for the moment congrats for that and best of luck for next year :)

  7. Angela
    Twitter: angelacorrias
    May 2, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    This is truly an overwhelming landscape, I would love to visit.
    Angela recently posted..“Did you know that stones bleed” Journey in the mysterious world of Pino Sciola

  8. John January 19, 2012 at 3:46 am #

    Yosemite looks absolutely incredible and the firefall is stunning. Do you know of any other ‘once a year’ type photographs? I’ve heard of the one at Chichen Itza where the shadows form a snake on the side of the pyramid during the equinox.
    John recently posted..Losing Myself in the Sites of Stanley Park – Vancouver, British Columbia

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