Two local photographers capture stunning images of ‘firefall’ in Yosemite – Orange County Register


The elements have to come together just right to see the famous “firefall” in Yosemite.

There has to be snow at the top of the cliff and temperatures need to be warm enough for that snow to melt to create the cascading waterfall.

If clouds roll in, or even a hint of haze, it will block the minutes-long window during sunset when vibrant colors reflect on the water just right to make it look like a stream of fire is flowing toward the ground.

Not to mention you have to be lucky enough to score a reservation during the short two-week window when it happens –if it happens – at the end of each February.

But when it all comes together, the stunning sight is said to be simply magnificent.

Just ask two local photographers who scored epic images of the rare phenom for three nights this week, capturing on camera what could be called one of nature’s greatest shows.

Mark Girardeau, a Mission Viejo photographer known for capturing the region’s wildlife and creator of Orange County Outdoors, teamed up with Torrance landscape photographer Patrick Coyne for the adventure about a six hour drive from Southern California.

The duo are mostly recently known for their breathtaking photos of last year’s rare bioluminescence phenomenon that showed up along the Southern California coast, the first to capture the neon blue waves caused by agitated algae.

“For us, it’s all about the chase and getting those special moments, just like the bioluminescence,” said Coyne, who captured a viral video of dolphins frolicking in the neon water. “It’s a nice little reminder that we live in such a beautiful area and sometimes we take it for granted.”

This time, they were after lava-colored waters, a sight Coyne got to see for the first time two years ago.

“It was magical, it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You want more and more.”

There were a lot of first-timer misses during his 2019 trip, he admits. He showed up late and it was tough to find the right spot among the crowds. He forgot a chair, so he stood for hours in the snow. And he didn’t think to bring food along.

This year, Coyne scored a hard-to-get reservation for Feb. 22, right as the state’s stay-at-home order lifted a few weeks ago. Girardeau, hitting the refresh button over and over, then got a spot for Feb. 21.

The sight was so amazing, they stuck around for a third sunset before heading back home.

“It’s not like other waterfalls, this is just straight snow melt,” Girardeau said. “There can’t be any clouds blocking the sun, if there’s a single cloud in the way, it won’t show up. You never know if it’s actually going to show up or not. I’ve heard stories of people showing up and never seeing it.”

The first night, they shot images from above the tree line to see the firefall from a distance, a sketchy trek through trees and steep hills away from the crowds.

“After a while, the view is like something out of a movie,” Girardeau said. “It was just surreal. It was the shot we really wanted. It was incredible.”

During the day, the falls are so faint you can’t even see the water flowing, so it’s always unknown what the sunset will bring, Girardeau said.

You find your spot and wait for hours, watching for any hint of color.

Then, you start hearing the echoes throughout the canyon, he said, the cheers of joy when the falls flash with vibrant oranges and reds.

“The first time we were there, we tried to go where the crowds were not, we hiked up to this rock pile, we could hear people in the valley start yelling – it was pretty cool,” Girardeau said.

Then, five minutes, 10 minutes, the show disappears as the sun dips down.

The second night, they got a closer look at the falls.

“Condition wise, we wanted to see if we could get it even better,” Coyne said. “We got it again.”

Then on the third night, a slight wind picked up, adding a new look as the lava-like water whipped around.

“We scored,” Coyne said. “A lot of people travel to Yosemite from all around the world to see this. Sometimes they get lucky, sometimes they don’t.”

The actual name of the waterfall is Horsetail Fall and it flows over the eastern edge of El Capitan.

Because the firefall has become such an attraction, the National Parks requires reservations from Feb. 12 through 28, this year with added restrictions because of the ongoing pandemic.

Last year, there was little snowfall so almost no water flowed to create the reflection. In past years, cloud cover has been so bad it has been only visible for a night or two during the two-week window.

Those who did get to see the phenomenon this year seemed appreciative to be out in nature, especially amid the pandemic, Girardeau said.

“People came from everywhere to see this. We have it in our backyard, we have no excuse to not go there,” said  Girardeau, who admits he hadn’t been to Yosemite in a decade.

And as photographers, it’s about enjoying those special moments and sharing them with others.

“We’re always seeking those moments where things line up or something phenomenal happens. And it also sheds light on our National Parks and places we need to preserve,” Coyne said. “It helps us show the world these places are magical and we want to persevere them for our kids and their kids.”


Headed to Yosemite? Here’s what to know:

The window to see the firefall only lasts a few more days, though it’s been known to occasionally show up in early March. To view Horsetail Fall, park at the Yosemite Falls parking and walk 1.5 miles to the viewing area near the El Capitan picnic area.

If you’re taking a trip to Yosemite National Park this spring or planning a visit this summer, know there are still restrictions in place related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reservations are required to enter Yosemite. Day-use reservations are valid for seven consecutive days with unlimited re-entries. There are also campground or lodging reservations allowed.

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