This rare Yosemite event is the "sunset" counterpart of Stonehenge in England.
During the nearly 15 years I gave slide shows and photography talks at the Le Conte memorial in Yosemite, I closed evening programs with this dramatic photograph, which captures a rare "perfect circumstances" of undoubtedly the most spectacular natural wonder of Yosemite, its "Natural FireFall on El Capitan".
This "firefall", created by the setting sun, is real; that is the 3000-foot face of El Capitan in the photograph. It's possible that this natural event was the inspiration for the creation of the man-made Glacier Point firefall (from glowing embers) that was discontinued in 1968.
The Horsetail Falls Firefall, as many call it, can only occur in winter, and it is very rare that the perfect alignment (with only the waterfall illuminated by the setting sun) combines with summer-like warm days that have melted snows above El Capitan to create a substantial Horsetail Falls.
This perfect set of circumstances likely occurs no more than once a decade, or less, and lasts no more than two minutes. I'm not aware of any photo comparable to this one, showing a large "natural firefall" against the entirely-in-shadow southeast face of 3000-foot El Capitan.
For a closeup of this rare event, see Stonehenge Sunset.
Here is the "story" behind the photo:
In the winter of 1978, I went to Yosemite for a weekend to train at Badger Pass for a backcountry ski journey across the Sierras. As I was driving home out of the Valley in the deepening twilight, I rounded a bend, and was so startled by what I saw that I nearly drove into the Merced River on my right. I slammed on the brakes, jumped out, and, knowing I had no time for leisurely "feeling" the landscape, braced the camera against a tree and snapped some shots, using two lenses. Within two minutes, the "firefall" disappeared. I later learned I had witnessed and photographed an extremely rare perfect alignment of the setting sun -- lighting up only the Horsetail waterfall (nothing of the face of El Capitan). There is likely only one single day in the year where such a perfect moment can occur. Normally the Horsetail waterfall is only a wisp in the cold of winter -- only several days of summer-like warm weather, melting the snows above El Capitan, can turn it into a winter waterfall. So, rounding the only bend in the road that presents this view of El Capitan, on precisely the right day, at precisely the right time, with a cloudless sky, after unseasonably warm days --- you know, the only thing I can take credit for is that I had film in my camera. The rest was just sheer, pure, unbelievable luck.
In all likelihood, this rare but natural event was the inspiration for the man-made "firefall" of burning embers that was pushed over the cliffs of Glacier Point above Camp Curry at the close of each summertime evening show, until discontinued in the late 1960s.
See Purchasing for print-ordering information for this photograph.