Waterfall in Yosemite looks like it's on fire

If you watch the first few shots of this video with the sound off, you might be forgiven for thinking it was about volcanoes. It certainly looks like a thin trail of lava cascading off the side of a cliff. But the reality is almost more awesome. If you're in the right place on a perfectly clear day in February, at just the right time of evening—and if the snow melt has been active enough—you can watch the water flowing over Yosemite National Park's Horsetail Falls turn bright orange-red.

Fascinatingly, this phenomenon bears a coincidental resemblance to a man-made Yosemite attraction that happened every summer between 1872 and 1968. Unlike the Horsetail Falls, the Yosemite Firefall really was fire—embers from a bonfire pushed over the side of a cliff to create a glowing cascade. I wondered, watching this video, whether the Firefall had been inspired by the natural "Firefall" at Horsetail Falls. Surprisingly, that doesn't seem to be the case. Instead, the Firefall started when guests at a privately owned lodge began paying the lodge-owner's sons to get their father to push embers from the family's outdoor fire over the cliff at the end of the night.


  1. As a kid in the 1970s/early 1980s, I went to a summer camp where, on Thursday night, parents’ night, they’d have an Indian pageant in a natural rock amphitheater, and, as part of it, dam up the waterfall, pour a barrel of kerosene into it, and then, at the climax of the show (Evil spirits defeated, captives released from the cave), undam the creek, light the kerosene, and a flaming waterfall would result.

    I’m sure they don’t still do that, environment and all, don’t you know, but still, what an amazing spectacle that was. You could feel the heat like a sunburn, sitting in the audience.

  2. That was just beautiful. I really love how people from all over who may have nothing in common come together to witness, appreciate and enjoy something that may or may not happen. I guess kind of like what Christianity was supposed to be.

    Thank you.

  3. The firefall (and I believe the falls afire) are featured in of all movies, “The Caine Mutiny.”

  4. I was in Yosemite two weekends ago for four days of photography and (coincidentally) was there at roughly the right time for these falls.

    Two hours before sunset at the prime shooting locations they are basically completely packed with photographers. There are very few physical places you can stick tripod legs to get a clear shot without other junk in the way.

    Of course, there was no point in staying. For the entire week from the 17th through the 26th conditions didn’t line up. There was a lot of snow and clouds, and of course there was no water flow over the falls so even if the light was right, the water wasn’t.

    Perhaps next year :)

  5. I was once in Moab, AZ, a fantastically beautiful place with Martian looking cliffs and bright red rock formations all about. On our second to last day there, a freak shower came on, flooding the whole town. While driving in from the desert, I looked over at a massive cliff near the road..the whole face of the cliff had turned into dozens and dozens of bright red waterfalls, each hundreds of feet high..I felt like it was something out of the lord of the rings. It was truly an awe-inspiring moment, I wish I had a camera!

    This reminded me a bit of that :)

  6. I found your site through an old friend, but I was totally unprepared for this wonderful piece on Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls, and the reference it made to the now-defunct Firefalls at Yosemite. As a small child I was taken to Yosemite several times, and on one of those occasions I was at the top of El Capitan when the burning coals were pushed over the edge to create a genuine “fall of fire.” I never saw the spectacle from below, but we watched the coals being pushed over the edge, and heard (I think, but a child’s memory leaves gaps) some cries of awe from below. But it wasn’t until many years later that my mother told me that I was using the iron barrier bars as a swing until… my mother spotted me, stifled a gasp, and when I swung inland she grabbed my ankles, ending my budding career as a daredevil Firefalls act. When I told her those many years later that she’d spoiled my fun her only response was to say I’d almost given her a heart attack. Those barriers were just a couple of feet from the edge… and the coals were so pretty…sponse

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