One of the more illuminating spectacles from Mother Nature's bag of tricks takes place in February at California's Yosemite National Park just before sunset and is only visible for a few minutes. But that's enough to satisfy roughly 2,000 curious visitors who made a 2019 pilgrimage to the park's granite cliff of El Capitan and watched the illusion of the Horsetail Fall turning from a cascade of water into a fiery flow.

This year, what locals and park officials call the Horsetail Firefall is slated to repeat its annual cameos at El Capitan during the last two weeks of the month, most likely beginning Feb. 12. Depending on conditions, the fall could change into a bright orange or even an angry crimson. But if it's cloudy the effect won't appear at all. Most regulars to this annual light exhibition usually factor in the weather to ensure they get at least one chance to see the phenomenon.


It's called the Firefall for a reason

It's easy to see how Horsetail Fall got its name since the water formation does resemble an equine tail. As for firefall, well, use your imagination. The display of a hellish glow emitting from a crack in the cliff is similar to the way the caverns of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy projected the evils that lurked within.

Despite the supernatural vibe, credit science for rationally explaining the effect. The position of the sun in the sky this time of year provides the perfect angle for its rays to shine on the falls, which reflects that sunlight to complete the effect. Technically, the sun is in that same position in the sky during October; unfortunately, the Horsetail Fall is largely dependent on snowmelt, which would have long dissipated by then.

This year, according to CNN, audiences may be in for a real treat. The snowpack has been larger than usual, meaning the falls will be bigger than usual, which should also make the effect even larger.

Related: 10 American National Parks That Are Great To Visit In The Fall

A hidden secret for years

The firefall has probably existed for thousands of years, but it's only been recently that the phenomenon has become publicly known. It was common knowledge among the aboriginal Awahneechee nation for years and was subsequently discovered by white explorers in 1851. Interestingly, none of them made a big deal about the find. Naturalist John Muir, who reputedly knew every inch of the territory and was responsible for creating the borders of Yosemite National Park in 1889, never once even mentioned Horsetail Fall.

It wasn't until 1973 when photographer Galen Rowell first captured an image of the firefall in its blazing glory. But its popularity never ventured beyond the circles of budding photographers and outdoor adventurers, until digital photography and social media provide ample opportunities for others to share their images of the effect worldwide.

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How do you get there?

Until recently you needed reservations to stay in Yosemite in order to catch the firefall, but park officials have since lifted that requirement so more people can witness the effect. Much of that has to do with the fact that more firefall-savvy folks have booked all the accommodations in the park well in advance. That said, you might find rooms at hotels in nearby towns like El Portal, Midpines, Mariposa, Groveland, and Oakhurst.

Getting to Yosemite, 170 miles east of San Francisco, is easy. The park, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, much of it in central California, has five main entrances, including those located right by Fresno, CA and Reno, NV. You can ask for directions to Yosemite Lodge or take advantage of the Yosemite Valley Shuttle System, which will also get you there.

Yosemite has sanctioned a parking area at the lodge, but beyond that point, spectators have to hoof it to the marked viewing spot, which will be as close as you can get to Horsetail Fall.

Related: 10 National Parks That Should Be On Your Bucket List

Good luck getting a close-up, though

If you're going to take pictures of the firefall, make sure you've got a good zoom lens on your camera or a similar function on your smartphone because tourists are no longer allowed to get any closer than the designated area. Up until this year, there used to be three viewing areas, but because of environmental damage to the park caused by increased traffic, officials have decided to close two of the spots.

One of the areas was near a bank of the Merced River, and with more tourists than expected, that left many visitors having to watch from the bank. Unfortunately, that pedestrian traffic trampled valuable vegetation causing the bank to erode. Officials also complained of litter scattering the surroundings once the firefall spectacle was over.

The one that remains open is the El Capitan picnic area, roughly a 1.5-mile hike from the lodge. Park officials recommend all tourists dress warmly.

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