Mr. Sentinel and his Fiery Falls
I first photographed Yosemite National Park's "Fire Falls" in 2011. Although Galen Rowell might be the first person to photograph this, it was John Harrison's photo that inspired me to go see it myself. I was mesmerized when the clouds parted and the falls lit up as if someone had stuck a match under it. I went home and created a computer program to indicate exactly when it would happen each year and I've been using it to help me (and others) come see the falls ever since.
Hordes of people visit Horsetail Falls in February when the setting sun causes the waterfall to glow but most don't know that the moon can do it as well. Willie and I returned a few months later, in April 2011, to photograph the moon lighting up the falls. I ran the computer program through the next 50 years and it became clear ... the moonlit Fire Falls is a rare event. First, the moon has to be in the right portion of the sky and it needs to be low in elevation to cast an orange light; the sun also has to be low enough in the horizon to not wash out the light of the moon. Next, there needs to be a cloudless night. Lastly, there needs to be an actual waterfall flowing from snow melting off the top of El Capitan. While the moon may be in the right part of the sky each year, most often this occurs in May and June when the waterfall has stopped flowing. With all the snow we've had this year I knew it was a possibility that things might line up properly. The May occurrence was ruined by a large snowstorm but it was also a blessing because it created just the extra bit of snow to cause a trickle of water to flow in Horsetail Falls in June.
Most photographers take photos of the Fire Falls from 2 locations: either near the El Capitan Picnic grounds or from a spot along the riverbank off Southside Drive. Lately I've seen photos where people scrambled up the south wall of the valley, which provides a beautiful wider view of the scene. Although Sentinel Dome provides a perfect line-up, I've never seen a photo from here since the road to Sentinel is closed in the winter and the snowshoe up to it is grueling. This June occurrence was my chance to do something new! As far as I know, this photo is the first of the Fire Falls taken from Sentinel Dome! (if someone else beat me to it, I'd love to see it)
I left work at 3pm and picked up Jeff, who had decided to join me at the last second. We arrived at Glacier Point at 10pm, napped for 2 hours and then hiked to the top of Sentinel Dome. We took photos for 4 hours, slept for another 2, and then drive home. I was back at work by 11am!
In 2011 I had learned that photographing this scene is *hard*: focusing in the dark is difficult and with so little light, it pushes the boundaries of the camera and lens. We arrived early knowing we'd want time to setup and get things right. I also brought a lightweight chair and some beer with me so I could sit and enjoy the scene. Sure enough, just as I had predicted, the trickle of a falls lit up beautifully from 2:45am to 3:15am.
The view from Sentinel Dome is spectacular and I'm so glad I could share it with someone because it was breathtaking (even with only a trickle of water). It's a much wider scene than the 2 popular locations which allowed me to make the photograph really feel like it was nighttime. From the Dome you can see into the Valley, with Cathedral Peaks on the left, El Capitan towards the middle, Horsetail Falls on the right and the town lights of Coulterville in the background. The warm night brought a haze into the air that created small light rays as the moon set in the sky. From up here we had a perfect view of the moon crossing from left to right as it sunk towards the horizon; we could see the hills it has to stay above in order for Horsetail to glow. The trees below Sentinel Dome created a perfect "frame" at the bottom of the photo. Although I wish there had been more water in the falls, Jeff and I will remember this night for the rest of our lives!
Nikon D850 w/Nikkor 24-70mm:
50mm, f/3.5, 20 sec, ISO 800
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