Every February, a waterfall named “horsetail falls” begins to run off the top of the famous El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Then, if the conditions are right at sunset, nature pulls of an incredible trick… as if by magic, the thin falls seem to catch fire.

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This is not an exaggeration, or the result of intense photo editing. It is simply mother nature in all its glory, turning a waterfall into something that looks for all the world like falling lava by mixing beautiful sunset light with falling water.

Horsetail Fall - Yosemite National Park by Darvin Atkeson on 500px.com

Here’s an explanation by Darvin Atkeson, who captured the stunning photograph above in February of 2014:

Cold days in the middle of Winter don’t always draw a lot of people to Yosemite Valley. The one exception is a short-lived phenomenon in which the shadow of El Capitan sweeps across the face of the cliffs to align perfectly with Horsetail Fall, causing the waterfall to glow in the dazzling colors of the setting sun.

The effect gives the impression of falling lava or fire reminiscent of Yosemite’s famous Firefall where hot glowing embers were pushed off the cliffs of Glacier Point creating literally falling fire that could be seen from the valley floor. The Firefall event was discontinued in 1968 by the National Park Service in part due to huge crowds it drew and that it was not a naturally occurring event. But sometimes nature is more clever than we think and had been having its own version of Firefall each February for thousands of years but it wasn’t really noticed until 1973 when photographer Galen Rowell snapped his now famous photograph of Horsetail Fall glowing in the evening sun.


As is often the case with nature, the show varies from day to day and year to year and even minute to minute. Weather can make or break the event and as often is the case it may not occur at all. Clouds cause many to give up early and head down the long road for home only to have the sun pop out at the last minute creating fantastic light that lasts just a few minutes and then is gone. Drought in California made this year very questionable but a bit of snow and a last minute rainstorm caused the fall to spring to life. If you arrive early Horsetail Fall may be barely flowing but as the sun warms the High Sierra, the snow melts and the waterfall’s flow picks up. So be sure to stick it out to the last minute. This is one place where you don’t want to try and beat the crowd home.

This truly is one of the natural wonders of the world, and an event that must be seen to be believed. And thanks to some talented 500px photographers, you don’t actually have to go there to see it:

Horsetail Firefall by Pete Wongkongkathep on 500px.com

Horsetail Falls - Yosemite by Raveesh Ahuja on 500px.com

Destroyer of the One Ring by Aaron M on 500px.com

Firefalls by Mitul Shah on 500px.com

Firefalls by Rawin Cheasagul on 500px.com

Lava flow - Yosemite by Dmitri Fomin on 500px.com

Fire Falling by jared ropelato on 500px.com

Horsetail Magic by Russ Bishop on 500px.com

Firefall by Rahul Prasad on 500px.com

Horsetail Falls by Nikhil Shahi on 500px.com

Horsetail Falls Firefall by Brent Clark on 500px.com

Fire in the Rocks by Jason Hatfield on 500px.com

Falls of Fire by Nikhil Shahi on 500px.com

Fire Falling by jared ropelato on 500px.com

Weather Breaks On El Capitan & Horsetail Falls by Brent Clark on 500px.com


The horsetail falls glowing phenomenon is well-known and well-documented during sunset, but according to a few photographers, once or twice every one or two years (so much much more rarely) moonlight can have a similar effect!

Here is a photograph by talented 500pxer Aaron M that shows off this incredible phenomenon. You can read the story behind this photo here.

Moonlit Horsetail Falls by Aaron M on 500px.com

There are many more photos of horsetail falls “on fire” on 500px, you just have to look for them. And if you’ve got your own spectacular shot of this glowing waterfall hiding somewhere in your archives, upload them to 500px and drop a link in the comments!