Yosemite National Park, in central California's rugged Sierra Nevada Mountain Range at an elevation of 4,000 feet, is a hive of activity throughout the warmer months of the year. Despite its rugged nature, its 1,200 square miles of wilderness lie a mere 195 miles from the populous San Francisco Bay metropolitan area. The park is a summer delight, but it is necessarily shared between the many visitors crowding its special sights, made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams. One of the most unique sights of all therein is the inimitable Horsetail Fall.
Despite Yosemite drawing a bigger crowd in the summer, it is in fact early spring, which comes in late February to these parts, when Yosemite Park, recovering from the damage of summer visitors under a layer of snow, yields one of its greatest delights. At that time, the setting sun most vividly seems to be 'igniting' the cascading water over Horsetail Falls. This spectacular, but all too brief event, is called a “firefall” after human beings trying to imitate nature with pyrotechnics thrown over the cliff, a practice that was stopped in 1968. There is left the name for the lava-like wonder illuminating the stream of water falling over the eastern summit of El Capitan, the name of the monolith from which Horsetail Falls flows. Though it is crowded with rock-climbers over the summer months, it is austere, bare, and majestic in winter. El Capitan, rising more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor, is the largest granite monolith in the world, while Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. Images such as these continue provoking photographers from around the world to descend upon Yosemite Valley to await the alignment of melting snow and a descending sun bringing forth the spectacularly lighted waters, resembling molten lava, in late February.
The Southside Drive-accessibility to the elusive light show is possible as a day-trip from San Francisco, and can be reached by hiking north out of the Twin Bridges trailhead on US Route 50. However, The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Wawona Hotel, and Curry Village offer reduced prices in winter, with connections to ski-lifts offering yet another draw. With the sun and earth aligning over natural wonders of all kinds for outdoor recreation lovers, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and other outdoor pursuits are available. These activities are aligned with the park’s ecological vision from its beginning, through a collaboration between the National Park Service and the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, to offer snowshoe trips, a snow hut, and other enticements to visitors. Nonetheless, strict control of such activities is not always possible, which becomes apparent when one considers that around 3 million visitors burden the ecology of the park in the warm months.
There are all manners of activities available for thousands of visitors to the park to partake in amidst nature. From wondrous waterfalls with rugged granite cliffs to climb, to geysers, paths lined by giant sequoia trees, over 250 species of birds, all manner of fauna, including the largest population of wild bison in the world, and deep lakes, the park has it all. Many of these can be seen, along with the night skies' glittering planets, stars, and galaxies overhead, can be viewed from the many traditional lodges, hotels, and camping grounds that dot the landscape in the area.
The book Off the Wall - Deaths at Yosemite, which is available at the tourist shops in Yosemite, should be heeded for its forebodings. The book details tales of people falling off of cliffs, being attacked by bears, getting lost on wild country tales, falling into waterfalls from slippery rocks, and drowning in the frigid waters along the valley floor. This was the pristine, rugged nature of the pioneers and prospectors, and much of its magnificence, and danger, remain intact. Horsetail Falls inspires awe, and it should also inspire caution.