Yosemite is one of the places you MUST see before you die. And I can honestly tell you my first time seeing Half Dome from Glacier Point truly took my breath away. And to think the Ahwaneechee got to LIVE here.
Well, after gold seekers about 1850 revealed the wonders of Yosemite to “civilization,” the U.S. Military ousted the native Ahwaneenechee in 1851 (another whole sad story), setting the stage for the area to teem with homesteaders, tourists, entrepreneurs, stagecoaches, inns, lodging, orchards, and livestock.
Many people were already concerned that the groves of Giant Sequoia would fall victim to loggers (sadly, many did), so President Lincoln took time during the raging Civil War to sign the Yosemite Grant, protecting the valley and the Mariposa Grove. This was the first territory ever set aside by Congress for public use and preservation.
The glory of Yosemite laid firm foundations in such notables as photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir. So it’s fitting that one of Glacier Point’s claims to fame, the controversial Fire Fall, ended as it did.
My hubby remembers seeing this man-made phenomenon when he was a little boy, but envirnomentalists halted the show in 1973.
Here’s the story. The “Fire Fall” was started in 1872 by James MacCauley, owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel, for the entertainment of his guests. Every summer night, he built a roaring campfire at the edge of Glacier Point, and at evening’s end, kicked the embers over the edge of the cliff. They’d tumble some 3,200 feet to the valley floor.
Visitors down in the valley began to clamor for more, and MacCauley and his family sensed an opportunity. Requesting donations, they were able to haul in more wood to the Point and produce more dramatic fire falls. After 25 years of “performances,” though, MacCauley was evicted, and the nightly spectacles came to a screeching halt. After a few false starts, the Fire Fall was reinstated in 1917. At nine p.m. each summer night, the ritual began.
A master of ceremonies at Camp Curry on the Valley floor would have the following exchange with the firemaster up at Glacier Point.
MC: Hello, Glacier Point?
Firemaster: Hello Camp Curry.
MC: Is the fire ready?
Firemaster: The fire is ready.
MC: Let the fire fall.
Firemaster: The fire falls!
At that moment, the enormous pile of embers from a fire started hours earlier was slowly and rhythmically pushed over the edge of Glacier Point, resulting in a flowing, glowing cascade. The golden site reminded spectators of Yosemite’s magnificent natural waterfalls. Down in Camp Curry, the visitors would break out in the song, Indian Love Call.
The Fire fall was temporarily halted during World War 11, with many wishing it would permanently end. Environmental consciousness was already brewing, as was the “hypocrisy” of cheering on something artificial in the realm of such natural splendor. Furthermore, huge crowds on the valley floor were damaging meadows and vegetation and bothering wildlife. However, public outcry was intense. Despite protests from the National Park Service, the fire falls soon commenced.
However, in 1968, George Hertzog, director of the National Park Services, ended the Fire Fall permanently. A ceremonial final fall was held on January 25 that year. It was said to have ended in a glorious, dramatic spurt with an attendance of only 50 people. Not the thousands of a summer night.
Three fun bits of trivia about The Fire Fall:
1. Red fir bark resulted in the best embers, and after 1920, only red fire bark was used.
2. The Firefall is featured in a scene in the 1954 movie, The Caine Mutiny.
3. The only time the Fire Fall did not start promptly at 9 p.m. occurred with good reason. When President Kennedy visited the park in 1960, he was taking an important phone call, so the Fire Fall started thirty minutes late that night.
Well, amazingly, in 1973, just a few months past the 100 year anniversary of the original unnatural fire fall, photographer Galen Rowel “discovered” Yosemite’s true and natural fire fall.
Seems every February, the fire fall returns to Yosemite at sunset. The setting sun illuminates one of Yosemite’s lesser known waterfalls, Horsetail Falls, so that it looks like a fire fall flowing over El Capitan. It’s tricky, though. Horsetail is so scant it’s often not even marked on maps. During the last two weeks of February, IF there is water coming off El Capitan, and IF it is clear at sunset –often it isn’t due to storms, the rays of the setting sun illuminate the falls for a short time to appear as a stream of golden fire. Photographers sometimes wait two or three days, often waist deep in snow, to catch the elusive, ethereal moment.
How about you? Did you ever see the Fire Fall? How about something that literally took your breath away?