The Compass Blog

The Firefalls of Yosemite

Kathi Noaker

Think of Yosemite National Park and images of its iconic waterfalls may come to mind. But have you heard of Yosemite’s Firefalls? Beginning in 1872 and continuing for almost one hundred years, there was a unique tradition that took place seven nights a week during the summer known as the Yosemite Firefall. 

Nineteen years before Yosemite became a National Park, an Irish immigrant named James McCauley built a small hotel called the Glacier Point Mountain House at Glacier Point.  He and his wife Barbara, along with their kids, operated the hotel during the summer months.

As the story goes, McCauley would make a campfire for his guests every night on the cliff that jutted out over the valley. At the end of each evening, he’d kick the bright orange coals over the edge. People in the valley would see the hot embers spilling down 3000 feet to the valley below and loved it. Word got around about the spectacle, and people started paying to see it. As interest grew, so did the size of the fire and the crowd of folks showing up every night to watch it.

Then in 1879, the Washburn brothers arrived. They owned the Wawona Hotel, and they put the kibosh on the nightly tradition. They had the Guardian of the State kick James McCauley and family out and took over his hotel at Glacier Point. 

In 1899, David Curry came to Yosemite and established Camp Curry. When he heard visitors frequently recollecting about the Firefall, he brought it back. From then until 1968 – with a hiatus during World War II – it morphed and grew into an even bigger spectacle. Red fir bark was discovered to provide a more even flow of the coals, so employees would gather huge piles to be burned each evening. During the 60’s, a song from a 1924 Broadway musical, Indian Love Call, was sung as park visitors watched the cascade of fire. In 1962, President Kennedy even came to see the Firefall. 

In January of 1968 the Director of the Park Service ordered the Firefall be discontinued as “such a man-made event was inconsistent with the Service mission to encourage appreciation of natural wonders.” He deemed the Firefall as appropriate as “horns on a rabbit”. 

The last Firefall took place on January 25th – that is, the last man-made Firefall. 

Fast-forward 5 years to 1973. Photographer Galen Rowell was out and about in the park and noticed the setting sun light Horsetail Fall against the dark east buttress of El Capitan. He had accidentally discovered a rare natural event that, depending on conditions, happens during the last two weeks of February. If there is good water flow from the snowpack and clear skies to the west so the sun rays backlight the waterfall, as the sun sets, it lights up the falls with an orange glow that makes the falls appear as if they were on fire. 

Since then, photographers and park visitors gather the last two weeks of February each year at the El Capitan picnic area on the Northside drive – where Rowell took his famous shot – or after the Cathedral Beach picnic area on the Southside drive, to witness Mother Nature’s Firefall. 

Nature’s Fire Fall sounds like an incredible bucket list item to me!