Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall that flows in winter and early spring. The fall comes off the El Capitan mountain in two distinct streams and drops some 1,570 feet onto steep slabs, spraying up in a mist before continuing down another 500 feet to the bottom of the mountain.
But as beautiful as the fall is by itself, it is the few days every year during the last two weeks of February when it becomes the “firefall” that people wait for. As the sun dips behind the horizon line, everything will begin to go dark and it will seem, for a moment, as if the firefall has failed to ignite. But as the last of the sunlight disappears, its rays will hit and reflect off the falls at the exact right angle creating a spectacular, if short-lived, effect that looks like a beautiful cascade of fluid fire. This phenomenon occurs only a few conditions are right—no clouds or fog, specific sunset angle, and sufficient snowmelt to feed the waterfall.
Bizarrely, Yosemite Park used to actually create “firefalls” by pushing huge piles of coals off the edge of a cliff. These were an incredibly popular tourist sight from the 1880s all the way through the 1960s, when the park realized this was a fire hazard (which seems kind of obvious) and stopped. Luckily, this natural phenomenon was able to pick up where the park rangers left off after famed climber/photographer Galen Rowell noticed it and took a picture of the firefall effect on Horsetail Falls in 1973.
Firefall aside, Horsetail Fall is the second highest free-falling waterfall in Yosemite Valley. The highest is on the other side of El Capitan and is also seasonal. It’s called Ribbon Falls, but it doesn’t stand out from the flat wall where it free falls down to the valley floor as well as Horsetail Falls, which has an edge allowing people to view it from the side.