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The fickle, golden magic of the Yosemite "Firefall"


Yosemite National Park in California is always full of natural wonders, but around this time each year, photographers and visitors from all over gather, hoping to see something extra special.


Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall that spills off the eastern face of the iconic El Capitan rock formation. And on certain days, just before sunset, the sunlight hits it in such a way that the water glows gold and yellow like lava. They call it the Firefall.

KELLY: Now, it only lasts a few minutes, and conditions have to be perfect, so it's elusive to catch. Photographer Evan Russel is the curator at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. He trekked out earlier this week to try to capture the Firefall on his camera before the season ends.

EVAN RUSSEL: We're out walking through the woods, looking up at Horsetail Falls. I'm going to walk out to a point, take a look. Oh. Oh, and it does look clear out there. Oh, wow. OK, that's a good sign. I'm just waiting on that sun to put on a display.

SHAPIRO: Russel could barely contain his excitement. But then, as the sun neared the horizon...

RUSSEL: Oh, man, those clouds are getting thicker by the moment. That's not good. Oh, in fact, now there's no light on the falls. It just all disappeared just like that. Oh, boy. Now, if there's no sunlight, obviously there's no Firefall. So we're going to have to just hope for the best, I guess.

SHAPIRO: The clouds never cleared, and unfortunately, the sun set with no Firefall.

RUSSEL: I was getting really excited myself. I thought it was going to be really dramatic with those - you know, the clouds hovering around, and the sun was going to shoot up from underneath. And it teased us pretty bad.

KELLY: Despite his disappointment, Russel was not ready to give up just yet.

RUSSEL: All right, we're headed back out to Firefall, Day 2. We're going to try again. So here we go. It's actually going to happen tonight. There's almost no clouds on the horizon. It's virtually clear out there. And, I mean, it's already started. It's already sort of started to turn just the faintest yellow. The wind is just kicking every little bit of water up there around. It's just curtains of beautiful water on the Firefall right now. Every second it's changing - every little second. It's really starting to glow now. It's turned - it's, like, a deep orange. This is that moment. This is the final few minutes of light. And here's that shot I've been waiting for.


KELLY: Photographer Evan Russel, curator at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, talking about capturing the Firefall.

(SOUNDBITE OF JVKE SONG, "GOLDEN HOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fox
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.