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David J Grenier Fine Art Photography

Yosemite's Winter Wonderland

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Over the last few years, I have learned to love winters at Yosemite National Park. What I have learned is that the arrival of a winter’s snow storm transforms the Park into a winter wonderland, a photographer’s dream and a source of never ending delight, and most unique to Yosemite is the Natural Firefall.

The Natural Firefall is one of Yosemite’s most amazing winter spectacles. Typically, around the latter part of February, the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall at just the right angle to illuminate the upper reaches of the waterfall. When conditions are perfect, Horsetail Fall glows orange and red at sunset. Although Horsetail Fall is visible from multiple viewpoints in Yosemite Valley, several factors must converge to trigger the Firefall. If conditions are not perfect, the Firefall will not glow. First and foremost, Horsetail Fall must be flowing. If there’s not enough snowpack in February, there will not be enough snowmelt to feed the waterfall, which tumbles 1,570 feet (480 meters) down the east face of El Capitan. Likewise, temperatures must be warm enough during the day to melt the snowpack. If temperatures are too cold, the snow will stay frozen and Horsetail Fall won’t flow. Second, the western sky must be clear at sunset. If it’s snowing, raining, or even just cloudy, the sun’s rays will be blocked and Horsetail Falls will not light up. Winter weather can be highly variable in Yosemite, however, and days that start off cloudy can clear up by sunset. If everything comes together and conditions are just right, the Firefall will light up for about ten minutes. To see Horsetail Fall glowing blood red is an almost supernatural experience.

The two images above were captured on February, 27th, 2011, albeit completely by accident. I 'happened' to be in Yosemite that winter at this time, and had just read about the phenomena of the Natural Firefall in a local newspaper. What I learned was that in 1973 the photographer Galen Rowell took the first-known photograph of the Firefall, and there was essentially a two week window when this could occur in any given year. Earlier that evening I was at Tunnel View and made the decision that I would like to shoot the sunset at Valley View instead. I was driving along Southside Drive, on the way to my intended destination, when I came upon an unusual number of vehicles parked along the road. This caught my attention, and I also noticed a number of photographers with cameras on tripods pointed in the direction of El Capitan, the majestic 7,569 foot monolith, a dominant feature in the Park.

While driving I looked back in the direction of the pointed cameras and was fortunate to notice the beginning stages of the Natural Firefall. I parked my car immediately and illegally up against a snow bank on the side of the road, jumped out with my camera and tripod, crossed the road and set up next to two photographers, who looked like they knew what they were doing and had planned to be at this particular spot. The Natural Firefall show had just begun and I was extremely fortunate to capture the images shown in this post. I was told by the two photographers that I set up next to that they had been in the park for the last two weeks and this was the first night the Firefall had occurred during that time. I could not help thinking driving home that night, sometimes it is better to lucky than good!

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