Firefall from the Sky

In majestic Yosemite National Park, between February 16th and February 23rd every year, the setting sun illuminates Horsetail Falls, tumbling down El Capitan, in such a way as to illuminate the waterfall in vibrant reds and oranges so it appears like a lava flow. In addition to the angle of the sun at this particular time of year, the conditions have to be just right for this to happen: ample water flow in the falls, as well as clear skies, unobscured by clouds, in the direction of the setting sun.

I didn’t have any intentions of photographing Yosemite’s famed firefall phenomenon again this year due to the lack of precipitation in the west for many months. While atmospheric river events in December blissfully dumped snow on the Sierra in December, weather was completely bone dry in January and February, and I was concerned about lack of water flow to make firefall a reality. But when I got the opportunity to witness Yosemite Valley from the air aboard a tiny four-seater Cessna 206, it was too good to pass up, even if it wasn’t an epic firefall year!

My husband and I packed up the truck camper and headed to the tiny gold rush town of Groveland in the Sierra foothills. In all the years we’ve been visiting Yosemite, we never even realized that there is a small airport there. There we met up with the kind owners of Yosemite Flights for an amazing experience not soon forgotten! After putting on hats, gloves, down jackets, and multiple clothing layers to keep warm, we put on our safety harnesses, and took off, electing to fly with the doors off to maximize our ability to capture images. Even with the heater going full blast, it was still a chilly 20 degrees at about 6,000 feet in the air. But, the skies were clear and sunny, favorable for firefall, and dense haze in the park from nearby prescribed Forest Service burns lent an unexpected soft diffuseness over the landscape that I actually quite liked.

Shooting handheld from a vibrating plane as the light was waning most certainly necessitated a fast shutter speed and high ISO, but the Canon R5 handled it pretty well, and witnessing Yosemite’s familiar granite icons from a whole new perspective was exhilarating. “Half Dome”, for example, doesn’t resemble a dome from the air at all. One of the most recognizable rock features in the park, Half Dome's appearance as a perfect round shape cut in half is an illusion seen from the Valley floor. From the air, it's an elongated angular wedge, and I couldn't resist clicking the shutter from this angle of one of it's smooth sides bathed in late afternoon sunlight and smoke particulate in the atmosphere catching the setting sun's last rays of the day (below).

Backside of Half Dome, Aerial View

In one hour, our pilot, Jason, circled Yosemite Valley several times to allow us to capture the firefall phenomenon in the last light of the day. But, equally awe inspiring was the experience of Yosemite National Park’s massive granite cliffs, rivers and forest from thousands of feet in the air. It truly was heaven and I hope, not the last opportunity I’ll have to witness this magical place from a whole new perspective.

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