The Firefall, Yosemite's Lost Tourist Tradition

Yosemite’s waterfalls still roar each spring, and its granite cliffs stand sentinel year-round, but its fire falls no more.

For many generations of park visitors, watching the nightly stream of red-hot embers cascading from Glacier Point toward the valley floor, 3,254 feet below – the famous Firefall– defined a tourist trip to Yosemite National Park as much as seeing its more natural features.

The tradition seems to have begun as a Fourth of July spectacular staged in 1871 or 1872 by James McCauley, proprietor of the Mountain House hotel atop Glacier Point and owner of the Four Mile Trail that linked the point to the valley floor. As the story goes, when his guests requested a fireworks show, McCauley offered an even more elaborate spectacle. He would build a bonfire at the cliff’s edge and, after nightfall, as the fireworks echoed off the valley walls, push the burning embers over the edge, where they’d fall more or less harmlessly to a barren ledge some 1,400 feet below. His guests were so amused that McCauley began charging $1.50 for each performance, repeating the Firefall (without explosives) on an irregular basis.

It became a nightly spectacle in the early 1900s under the direction of David Curry, who revived the then-abandoned tradition as part of the entertainment programming at Camp Curry, his rustic lodging grounds located directly beneath Glacier Point on the valley floor. Curry apparently had few reservations about manipulating Yosemite Valley’s landscape to boost business at Camp Curry; he once proposed a golf course on the valley floor and, higher up, a series of dams and reservoirs that would make Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls flow year-round. The Firefall, then, was for its time (or for Curry, at least) a relatively modest landscape intervention.

Curry embellished upon McCauley's show. He contributed his own booming voice, exchanging greetings with his employee atop Glacier Point each night before bellowing the command: “Let the fire fall!” The shouted dialogue continued even after Curry’s untimely death in 1915, becoming part of an ever-more-elaborate ritual that incorporated an “Indian Love Call,” sung as the embers fell. Each night, spectators jammed Yosemite Valley’s roads and crowded its fragile meadows for a view of the Firefall. Up above, on Glacier Point, onlookers crowded around the bonfire – made of red fir bark – that was lit at 7 p.m. in preparation for the 9 p.m. main event.

Circa 1930 postcard of Camp Curry and the Firefall

Circa 1937 postcard of Camp Curry and the Firefall, courtesy of the author's collection.

The Firefall bonfire atop Glacier Point

Watching the Firefall from Camp Curry on the valley floor was always the main attraction, but tourists also gathered atop Glacier Point to watch the bonfire go over the cliff's edge. Circa 1960 postcard courtesy of the author's collection.

Firefall produce label, circa 1930

Firefall produce label, circa 1930, courtesy of the Yosemite National Park Research Library.

Eventually, changing attitudes about nature and the national parks caught up with the Firefall. The emergence of backpacking and climbing as low-impact (but high-tech) ways to experience Yosemite, along with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, signaled the rise of a new conservation ethic among park managers that shunned spectacles like Yosemite’s Firefall or Sequoia’s public bear feedings.

In a January 1968 letter to the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., National Park Service Director George Hartzog proposed the "elimination of such crowd-drawing attractions as the famed firefall and ‘vaudeville’ entertainment at Curry-sponsored campfires,” in favor of “an expanded program of ranger-naturalists interpreting the natural features of the park.” Hartzog and his deputies cited the congested roads and trampled meadows as secondary justifications. Above all, though, they stressed that the Firefall, as an artificial public spectacle, was something better fit for an amusement park than for a national park.

Never mind that the national parks from their inception organized themselves around the public consumption of monumental natural scenery – or that our very concept of “natural scenery” is artificial itself, entangled as it is with cultural traditions like Romanticism, landscape painting, and photography.

After one final performance on Jan. 25, 1968 – performed without any public notice that it would be the last, to avoid a flood of nostalgic visitors ­– the Firefall was extinguished forever.

Further Reading

Binnewies, Robert O. Your Yosemite: A Threatened Public Treasure. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2015.

Demars, Stanford E. The Tourist in Yosemite, 1885-1985. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2010.

Runte, Alfred. Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

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