It is February, and the Yosemite Valley is as beautiful as ever. But this February Yosemite in USA’s Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California is special. A clear sky in February ensures bright sun rays that create an amazing sight in the Valley. For a few days during the middle of the month the rays of the setting sun fall on the famous Horsetail Fall from such an angle that the water glows like molten fire, turning it into a Fire Fall.
Nature can be fussy in unveiling its beauty. The conditions are very specific: the mountain range must receive ample rainfall to sustain the waterfall with free flowing stream of water that would freeze in winter; the day temperatures in February needs to be high enough to melt the snow and get the water flowing down the rocks; and lastly, the sky should be clear at sunset during those days so that the Horsetail Fall can receive sunlight at twilight. Quite a tall order, or so it appears, given the freaky weather conditions in winter in the valley. Even a light evening haze can cause disappointment for the large crowds arriving in the Valley from hundreds of miles away to experience the sight.
This February stirred up hopes once more because of normal snowfalls in the high Sierras after a three year long dry spell. We reach the valley on the night of February 19 as the full moon casts its spell on the tall sequoia trees of the forest and the Lower Yosemite Falls appear surreal in its beauty. We spot snowflakes on tree tops, snow on roadsides that appears a glistening white in the moonlight and the snow-capped mountain peaks at the backdrop. The magnificent setting is ready for a grand spectacle.
We spend the night in the luxury of Ahwahnee Hotel – the name has been recently changed to The Majestic Yosemite Hotel as the management has changed hands. Named after the Ahwahnee tribe, the original inhabitants of this area before the famed Gold Rush and the European settlers came to occupy this area, the hotel is almost synonymous with the Valley. So our trip to the Valley this February is more exciting, living the exotic charm as is woven in the name to spice up our stay. The name Ahwahnee is an embodiment of the rustic past of the area, a past that resonates in the Valley.
Ahwahnee Hotel was built with the Native American tribal theme and opened its doors to public in 1927. Translated, it means the “place of the large gaping mouth.” The hotel in its original name is living the history till the day we visit the place, showcasing the art and crafts of the Native tribal community. The large oak tables, wrought iron chandeliers, and the rugs with Native American designs are all part of the original décor. There are unique and individual tribal motifs placed above each guest room door which is there from the beginning and rubber mosaic tiles in the entrance lobby continue to be there even today. Its share of celebrity guests is also impressive with names of President John F Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth featuring in the list.
The Fire Fall is the main attraction in February, though Yosemite National Forest has several waterfalls – some large ones, and some ephemeral, turning into a trickle after summer months. The beautiful Bridalveil Fall flows round the year and the Yosemite Falls in its entire three parts, is one of the tallest in North America. The main village of the native Ahwahneechee (this is what the Native American tribe called themselves) used to be at the base of the Yosemite Falls. The natural Fire Fall too has a history – much before it became famous, a manmade fire fall entertained visitors for a long time. We heard the story of James McCauley, owner of a hotel at the Glacier Point above Yosemite Valley who apparently started this spectacle quite inadvertently in 1872 when he threw the burning embers of a campfire from the mountain edge which rolled down like a fire fall. People visiting the Yosemite Valley several feet down watched this spectacle in awe and it became a summertime entertainment. The practice, a hugely popular one, continued till 1968.
The popularity of the natural Fire Fall is nothing less, going by the sheer number of people that has gathered this February. Yosemite continues to excite people’s imagination. The glow of the fireplace inside the hotel lounge still spreads warmth and live piano performance in the evening still connects its guests in harmony with Nature. Stories of famous photographer Ansel Adams, whose life’s work has been intertwined with Yosemite, playing piano here many evenings still entice guests. We carry home the memory of the towering redwood trees, the Half Dome and the many beautiful waterfalls in the Yosemite National Park area, the Ahwahnee Hotel and the transformation of the Horsetail Fall into a fire fall, like hundreds of people who camped in the Valley (not everyone could stay at Ahwahnee) that week end. The imageries stay vividly with us.
Photo credits Prasenjit Sengupta
Written bySumita Sengupta
The writer is a Delhi, India based journalist. Her work has been published in many mainstream magazines and newspapers including the Times of India and publications of Magna Publishing, the house of Stardust, Savvy, and Society etc. where she worked for 10 years. She loves to watch good movies and read good books that connect to history, biography and new places. She also loves to write, so if you have an interesting story to tell and don’t know how to begin, you can contact her.