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Setting sun creates Yosemite "firefall," making waterfall look like flowing lava: "It's magical"

Water flowing off Horsetail Fall glows orange while backlit from the setting sun during the "Firefall" phenomenon in Yosemite National Park on Feb. 15, 2023. On rare occasions every year from mid- to late February, the unique lighting effect at Horsetail Falls can be seen when the the sky is clear and water is flowing. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

A spectacular "firefall" wowed nature-watchers in California's Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, with the setting sun lighting up a waterfall like a ribbon of fire.

For a couple of weeks every year, the last rays of daylight hit Horsetail Falls, appearing to set the water alight like a river of lava gushing down a mountainside.

The phenomenon, which lasts just a few minutes at sundown and which draws tourists from across the country, relies on a rare combination of perfect conditions.

"When the sun drops at the exact right angle, it reflects upon El Capitan," Yosemite National Park Public Affairs Officer Scott Gediman told Agence France-Presse.

"It's a combination of the sun reflecting on the water, clear skies, water flowing. If all of that comes together, it's magical."

People look at the Horsetail Fall at Yosemite National Park in California
People look at the Horsetail Fall "firefall" near El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on Feb. 15, 2023. The phenomenon of this vista only occurs for only a few days in February each year when several weather and climatic conditions are just right. CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS

California, along with much of the western United States, is in the grip of a years-long drought that's badly depleted its rivers.

But bountiful downpours that started the year -- causing deadly flooding in some places -- have left the state in much better shape and watercourses are flowing.

California's signature blue skies put in an appearance on Wednesday, meaning visitors to Yosemite -- who were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time -- got their chance to see the firefall.

"The pictures I've seen are just gorgeous," said amateur photographer Terry Cantrell, who'd traveled from Fresno. "Everybody wants to have their own, so this is what I'm trying to do."

The long wait and the freezing temperatures were all worth it for fellow picture bug Whitney Clark, from San Francisco.

"Based on how the sun sets up against the mountain or the rock, it creates a really good fire effect for photographers and you can get a beautiful picture of it," she said.

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