El Nino Brings Home The Gold
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Sunday, February 28, 2016
By Gregory B, Cuvelier
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Iso 100


248 mm

1/60 sec 

Have you ever seen a waterfall on fire? This may seem to be the ultimate dichotomy at first. How can fire and water co-exist as one? The truth is, it is a grand illusion put on by Mother Nature when she is not being fickle. It is an illusion that will leave you breathless and filled with awe. Some have described it as looking like lava flowing over a cliff; others as a waterfall on fire and many of us simply say neither words nor photographs can do it justice. It is something that you must physically experience to fully comprehend. It is something you have to see to believe and even when you see it you still won’t believe it.  If I may humbly give you a recommendation, put this natural wonder on your bucket list and make sure you don’t miss it. It is better than anything you will find on the Internet, your cell phone or your big screen hi-definition TV. 

The fourth time was the charm for me. That’s right, the first three times I travelled there I never saw the falls illuminated due to weather conditions or lack of water for the falls.  You may be wondering, was it really worth four trips to see this phenomenon? The answer is a resounding “YES”. Having failed three times to see Horsetail Falls illuminated in orange and gold made the success of the fourth trip all the more sweet. There is nothing more rewarding than when you try, but fail, only to eventually succeed and achieve your goal. You may also be wondering why it is so difficult to see this event. To address this, it might be helpful to have a little background information on Horsetail Falls. You have to understand that for 11 months out of every year, nobody cares about Horsetail Falls. People who visit Yosemite during those 11 months don’t care about the falls and may not know it even exists. In fact, you normally can’t even see it because no water is flowing. However, for 2-3 weeks in February, given the correct conditions, photographers come from around the world to see this amazing ephemeral event, which gives the illusion of goldish-orange lava flowing over a cliff. If you are ever fortunate enough to witness this, it will take your breath away and leave you in awe.  

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain 


To view this phenomenon, you need three specific conditions. 

  • The Sun at the correct angle
  • Clear skies so the sun can reflect off the granite
  • Water flowing in the falls    

Although you need all three of these events superimposed to achieve this phenomenon, without water, the other two variables are of no consequence. For the falls to be running, you need rain or melting snow to fill up the drainage basin above El Capitan. California has been in a major drought for several years leaving very few opportunities to view Horsetail Falls in all its glory. However, this year, El Nino delivered the required moisture and Horsetail Falls brought home the gold! It was worth the wait. Some people are very disappointed if they don’t see the falls illuminated and I completely understand that. This fact might discourage other people from even making the attempt to see the falls. My suggestion is to come anyway and explore this national treasure. Horsetail Falls is magnificent when the planets align, but if they don’t, there are still many other beautiful things you can witness such as clearing storms, Yosemite covered in a blanket of snow, frazil ice, and many other natural wonders abound. Live in the moment, appreciate what Yosemite offers you, enjoy the journey along the way, and who knows, you just might get to see liquid gold flowing down El Capitan. Join me next year on this photo workshop, and just maybe we will get a repeat performance. http://www.gbcimpressions.com/workshops






PS: I welcome any comments and feedback you may have. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Leave a comment:
Greg Cuvelier - Thank you so much for sharing your comments. I am so glad you enjoyed it!
Natalie - Greg this is so amazing - the photo AND the phenomenon. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photo and the explanation.
Greg Cuvelier - Jeremy, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure meeting you. I will have some more photos of Horsetail Falls and Death Valley in my upcoming blogs. Every shot of Horsetails is so unique as the light and plume are ephemeral and constantly changing. BTW, I did stop at the Alabama Hills and Mobius Arch on the way back for some astro-photography. Both places were amazing and beautiful. CA truly is a photographers playground. We will have to plan a trip to meet up for a photo shoot in Yosemite again!. Thank you for reading my blog and providing comments.
Jeremy Mester - Greg, this shot is amazing! I will forever kick myself for not making the trip up there that Thursday. You couldn't ask for a more perfect day. I am thankful to have made it up there that weekend and after my 5th attempt over 5 years, finally captured the beauty of this phenomenon. Look forward to seeing more of what you captured in Yosemite and beyond!
Julie - Beautiful photo! So glad you were able to be in the right place at the right time. Nature is rarely so cooperative!
George Cataldo - Beautiful! Fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing.
Greg Cuvelier - Thanks for your comments Joe. I am glad you enjoyed the photo. There will be a few more in the upcoming weeks as well as new sand dune photos from death valley. Please stay tuned...
CptJoe - I saw this in the news, but can only imagine what it's like seeing it in person. Someday hopefully - but thanks for the pics!
Greg Cuvelier - Thank you Shari. It truly is something you have to see to believe. I am so thankful I had this opportunity!
Greg Cuvelier - Glenn, thank you so much for your feedback. I have a lot more photos of the falls from a different perspective I will be sharing in the future. As you watch the falls, it continually changes in terms of color and mist formations. It truly should be on the "wonders of the world" list.
Shari - The photo you shared is incredible so I can only imagine the live view is awe inspiring in person!
Glen Blaakman - Truly should be one of the wonders of the world. Thanks for sharing!