The Magic of Science



For two weeks each February, the sun’s arc throws light on Horsetail Fall in a certain way. When the conditions are correct, the fall glows orange against the dark granite of El Capitan’s eastern face. This sight is a common subject for Yosemite photographers, and has been since Galen Rowell made the first color photograph of the phenomenon. I do not have permission to include Mr. Rowell’s image here, but if you’d like to see it, this link will take you to his Mountain Light website. Look on the second page, for the image titled Last Light on Horsetail Fall. (Thanks to friend Tyler Westcott for the link and background info.)

Most people photograph the glowing fall so tight that it’s impossible to tell where the thing is. Since it only appears in early spring there aren’t that many opportunities to identify it. Even this image is a bit misleading due to the angle.

Horsetail-Fall-wide-view

The valley’s visitors usually have cameras of some sort, but in February almost all of them have tripods, too. The Horsetail draw is a big one for photographers of all abilities, and there’s plenty of company at just about every spot with a clear view of the fall.

Yosemite-photographers-2011-Horsetail-Fall

However, I’ve never been a fan of standing shoulder to shoulder with others and making the same image they are. I also wanted to put the fall into some context rather than just the close up view so many have done before. So I spent an hour and a half or so finding a spot that seemed like it would suit my purposes. From there I made the top photograph just before the magic really happened. When it did, the entire experience changed in a very moving way.

We are accustomed to the ordinary, as by its very definition we see the ordinary every day, wherever we look, over and over again, and it is utterly un-noteworthy. We see so much of the ordinary that we can easily start thinking that there is nothing else. We hear stories of miracles, of the supernatural, of people who believe sincerely in some sort of divinity, of powers beyond what we see every day in our ordinary lives, but when so much of our experience is made up of the barely interesting, it is easy to discount the existence of the truly amazing. Then suddenly, if we are lucky, we find ourselves witnessing something truly remarkable, truly extra-ordinary.

Imagine if you will a valley carved long ago from granite by glaciers, in itself a place many have called miraculous, full of iconic formations recognized around the world. To this place people travel from the other side of the globe to see these marvels with their own eyes. Sure,Yosemite is amazing even in very ordinary light because the shapes and sizes of the features here are beyond what most of us see every day.

Then imagine further that for a week to ten days each year, Nature, God, The Universe, whatever you like, decides that Yosemite’s “ordinary” marvels are not enough. Imagine that when the sun is in a specific arc at a certain time of year, it falls across the face of El Capitan in such a way that its light grows more and more orange as it narrows on the face of the granite. Because of the way the glaciers plowed through the valley so long ago, at this very specific time of year the orange light, growing ever more intense as the sun sets, projects a vertical swatch of warmth on the cliff that starts cool, gray and wide until the vertical face of El Cap blocks more and more of that light and the beam narrows. As it focuses, its color changes to yellow, then orange, then it burns like fire in a thin vertical stipe on the darkening granite.

Then imagine one more thing: precisely at the spot where the warming light narrows to its most intense, there’s a waterfall.

Now, if there was just this glowing orange light on the face of El Capitan, the phenomenon would be amazing enough, because for the light to behave as it does requires the formations of granite on either side to be just so. If either side were different, the orange light might never narrow and grow more intense as it does. It might spread evenly across the granite, and still be very beautiful, but in a much different way.

So that it narrows as it does is remarkable. But the existence of Horsetail Fall exactly where the light gets most intense before disappearing is somehow too weird to be real in a world composed of so many instance of ordinary, unremarkable things. Seeing this yearly phenomenon happen before me was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I was literally awestruck, to the point that several times I had to force myself to look through the camera and adjust settings and make photographs. I had to tear myself away from watching this amazing thing happen before my eyes.

When it begins you think, well, that really is pretty remarkable! The light grows more orange and more intense. Wow, that is really something! Oranger and brighter, as the mist of the waterfall appears and you can see it floating upward in the wind. That is unbelievable! Even more orange and even more intense as the vertical shaft of light narrows toward its conclusion. Suddenly (not suddenly at all in fact but it seems sudden if you’ve watched it gradually change) the orange light is so intense it looks like lava flowing over the cliff. It has taken perhaps 15 minutes for this progression from quite a nice thing to look at to prove that magic is real.

Yosemite-Horsetail-Fall-1

It’s not magic in the romantic sense, of course, it’s science of light waves and a specific spectrum made visible by the angle of light hitting the water and reflecting off the granite, etc etc. It makes a nice photograph, too. But to see it happen with your own eyes is enough to make the most cynical person think twice about divinity. How could it possibly happen like this as a scientific coincidence? How could the light grow to its most intense exactly where the seasonal water fall just happens to appear to receive this amazing light? It just doesn’t make sense if you think that things occur at random with the occasional coincidence to make us stop and say, Ha, you don’t see that everyday.

You don’t see this everyday, but if you’re lucky, you can see it once a year, in late February, if there was enough snow to make Horsetail Fall appear, and if there are clear skies for the setting sun to do its thing. You don’t just have to get incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time. You can plan a trip to Yosemite for this time of year and possibly see this amazing thing happen if the conditions are right. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.

UPDATE: my final image from this day is now available in two sizes, 15×30 inches, and 20×40 inches. Please use the Contact for or Email icon to inquire about other sizes and formats.


  • Jan Lee

    Stunning!

  • Scott, one of the most beautiful images, and equally beautiful descriptive accounts I’ve seen and read. Thank you. Amazing

  • One of the things that I absolutely love about Yosemite is that throughout the cycle of a year, the changing climate and position of the sun create a sequence of beautiful, but transient, events. For some lucky few, after some unusual autumn rainfall in the park, horsetail fall reappeared. It was roughly as much before the winter solstice as this february event is after the winter solstice. In other words, that same light came through the fall and this normally winter event repeated itself.

    I have a hard time deciding what the best time of the year is to visit the park, as there are interesting things to see throughout the year.