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"Don't Go Chasing Lava Falls"

Maybe you've seen it circling around the web in the last week, maybe not -- but there's a certain waterfall out there that's tricking people into thinking it's not a waterfall after all. "The Lava Falls" they call it, even "Nature's Firefalls" - referring to the glowing gush of water gracing the skies of Yosemite. In itself, it's truly nothing more than some water trickling off a magnificently high, towering peak. But for a few nights a year, it turns into something extraordinary - and if you're lucky enough you just might catch a glimpse. 

As you see in the picture, it's absolutely stunning - and at first glance, really truly does look like an actual volcano - gushing the remains of a fresh eruption. It's no surprise that in an age of constant tweeting, blogging, and surfing that this image could "catch fire" so to speak and the "lava flow" was accepted as truth before it even had a chance to be questioned. Of course, it's not an erupting volcano -- so how is this real, and not simply some Photoshop magic? As always, a little science can explain a lot... 

First lets gain a little perspective on what these falls really are. Take a look at the picture below, and you'll see the sheer size of the falls. They're sitting on "El Capitan" - a rock face in Yosemite National Park that features a 3,000' vertical drop. When there's enough water flowing either by rain or by snow-melt, the "Horsetail Falls" is created. 

So, on a normal afternoon, this looks like any other waterfall. Well, maybe not any other waterfall, but a much more majestic version of a regular waterfall nonetheless. The water slides down the 3,000 ft peak and starts to create a nice mist, or spray as it comes down the mountain. So what turns this into the glowing fire color that makes the waterfall famous?

In the middle of February, the sun is in the exact right position of the sky to catch the angle of the mountain just right. The rest of the explanation is very much like why the sky turns an orange/reddish hue at sunrise and sunset. The setting sun needs to travel through much more of the atmosphere and pass through many more air particles which help to scatter more of the light creating the vivid colors. Once this light hits the falls just right, it has the same effect and creates even better colors due to the mist and water of the waterfall.

Since this window of light due to the mountains and rugged terrain is very narrow, only a very small area of the rock face is lit. It just so happens that for this 2-week period in February, only the area immediately around the falls is lit, making it look like the waterfall itself that is glowing a fiery orange color.

If you want to see it in person, you can definitely try, but it can't be guaranteed. Mother Nature needs to provide a couple of things to ensure that the "firefalls" are in full force. First, you need to have enough rain or snow-melt to ensure that the falls is indeed active. Next, you need to have a mainly clear evening so that you can get a colorful sunset that will light up the mountain. Some years -- you won't get to see it at all! 

I'd say, it's worth a shot to at least try and catch it one of these days. Maybe something to put on the old Bucket List?

- TB

By: Tim Buckley


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