Walking up Yosemite's famous Four Mile Trail
This prescribed sequence of events would give Smokey Bear heartburn:
Build a huge campfire and let it roar for hours. Then push its orange-hot embers off a cliff toward a national park forest that has not been rained upon much, if at all, for months.
Listen as scores of people gathered below in lawn chairs and on blankets cheer, then belt out “Indian Love Call.”
Repeat each summer evening – for more than three-quarters of a century.
As the National Park Service marks its 100th birthday (a few days ago, on Aug. 25), one of its more curious tales is that of the Yosemite Firefall. The cascade of burning red fir bark that was shoved off Glacier Point, some 3,200 feet above Curry Village, was enjoyed by generations of visitors.
“It looked like a waterfall of fire,” said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite National Park public affairs officer who has been a park ranger for 20 years. “It was incredibly popular.”
Nearly 50 years have passed since the last firefall fell, but its memory burns brightly for those who saw it. And for those fit enough to hike Yosemite’s Four Mile Trail, there still are great views to be had below Glacier Point, none of which involves flames, smoke and sing-alongs.
‘Let the fire fall!’
The person who initiated the Yosemite Firefall is widely acknowledged to have been James McCauley. He and his wife ran the Mountain House, a small, two-story hotel built atop Glacier Point in 1873, from 1880 to 1897. As early as 1872 but perhaps later, possibly in frustration that more people were not enjoying the blaze, he pushed a campfire off the cliff. People below noticed and were awestruck. Being a businessmen, McCauley heeded their clamoring for more such entertainment and made the firefall a nightly event.
The firefall was discontinued for short periods of time, including for a few years after McCauley left the scene, and also for a few years just before World War I and during World War II. Camp Curry (established in 1899) and the Glacier Point Hotel (which operated from 1918 until the late 1960s, when it – Hello, irony! – burned down) coordinated the 9 p.m. summer ritual.
Gediman, who recalls witnessing the firefall at age 5 (“I’ve been coming here since literally in a stroller, with my parents”), last month in a phone interview recounted the nightly routine:
“There was the traditional firefall call where the person at Curry Village below would yell up and say, ‘Hello, Glacier Point!’ And the Glacier Point person would yell, ‘Hello, Curry Village!’ And the Curry Village person would say, ‘Let the fire fall.’ They called it the firefall call.”
We don’t do it now anymore, but in those days, you would bring your lawn chairs and your blankets and everyone would sit out in the meadow and watch it. It was a big deal.
Yosemite National Park public affairs officer Scott Gediman, talking about seeing the firefall in the 1960s
Google “vintage Curry Village posters” and your first option is likely to be one that depicts a flaming-orange gusher coming down the mountain, right on top of the trees. In checking out Yosemite firefall videos on YouTube, however, you will see that the reality was not that dramatic.
(By the way, Gediman told me that no one was injured, nor were any forest fires ignited, during the long history of the Yosemite Firefall.)
Russell Cahill of Olympia, Wash., who was a park ranger a half-century ago, recently posted on a Yosemite Firefall appreciation website that by 1967 the firefall had sparked such undesirable side effects as “uncontrolled camping, massive traffic jams and bad criminal behavior.” On Jan. 25, 1968, a final, wintertime version of the Yosemite Firefall was ceremonially enacted.
Gediman addressed the firefall tradition’s demise.
“You had literally hundreds of people out in the meadow, there was traffic, and also it was kind of a philosophical shift,” he told me before elaborating:
“For example, we used to feed the bears. We literally set up bleachers. … The rangers would pour the garbage out, and the bears would go and eat the garbage. It was basically entertainment for the visitors.
“And so part of it is, I think with the firefall, the feeding of the bears, the Indian field days – a lot of these things were done for quote-unquote entertainment for the visitors, and so there became a shift in the thinking that, hey, people come to a park like Yosemite, and people should be enjoying the park and the natural beauty. It’s not really necessary, or appropriate, for us to do these things for entertainment for the visitors.”
About those Indian field days:
“We would have the local Indians, mostly the Miwoks, (come and) they would put on the headdresses and stuff that weren’t even appropriate for them,” Gediman said. “That’s not what they actually wore. But based upon the movies and the TV shows, that’s what Indians looked like. …
“No one was trying to be insulting to them. And with the firefalls, no one was trying to cause any damage. It wasn’t like there was any sort of nebulous or negative connotations with this. It was just the way things were done.”
Make that 4.6 miles
Most people get to Glacier Point, off which the Yosemite Firefall embers were shoved for all those decades, via tour bus (there are three runs daily from Yosemite View Lodge) or automobile. My buddy Dave D’Antonio of Castro Valley and I last month walked up to Glacier Point and back to the valley floor via the 144-year-old Four Mile Trail.
A few weeks earlier, President Barack Obama and his family hiked down the same path, which itself is a testament to the trail’s scenic allure. Indeed, the trail offers sweeping views of El Capitan, Upper Yosemite Fall, the valley below and, ultimately, Half Dome.
Four Mile Trail, which actually is closer to 4.6 miles one way (that extra 0.6 miles is a big deal if you are struggling at all on the ascent), contains innumerable switchbacks but, in my opinion, requires less exertion than the Upper Yosemite Fall hike across the valley or the grueling Clouds Rest Trail off Tioga Pass Road. As far as the park’s day hikes go, it is moderately difficult, but not extreme. I would advise extra caution on the descent, though, as there is a lot of loose dirt and sand, sometimes on patches of asphalt.
4 millionHow many visitors are expected at Yosemite National Park this year
Asphalt? Why, I asked Gediman, are there remnants of that on a national park trail?
He referred to the period from when President Abraham Lincoln bestowed protected status on Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove in 1864 to California’s ceding of Yosemite lands to the federal government in 1906, and to the New Deal years three decades later.
“You basically had entrepreneurs … who would build these trails and these roads and charge tolls for them,” Gediman said. “The Four Mile Trail was one of them. I don’t know exactly when it was paved, but what happened in the 1930s and 1940s was for a lot of these trails in the park, the whole idea was to pave them. To basically make them easier to maintain, and make them easier for visitors to use. Of course, that’s not the way we do things anymore.
“But I continue to be amazed, after all my years here and go out, that there is pavement on the trails throughout the park.”
As Dave and I slowly ascended the mountain that bright Monday morning in mid-July, we leap-frogged a larger group whom we reconnected with at Glacier Point. Standing in a semi-circle before us, they took turns commenting about the Four Mile Trail.
“It was a beautiful trail the whole way up,” said Carrick Moore Gerety of Los Angeles. “… From the bottom to the top, you’re looking at the same beautiful fall. Lots of great tree shade.”
“I would say definitely start in the morning,” suggested Jesy Odio, a Costa Rican who is studying in Los Angeles. “This is not something that you would want to do after lunch.”
It’s not as tough as I thought it was going to be, but I don’t know if it’s because we’re acclimated now, or it’s more in the shade on this side, so you’re not getting beaten by the sun the whole time.
Troy Redmond of Salem, Ore., ascending the Four Mile Trail with Jenny Weirich, also of Salem
“You really can see how you started from the bottom, and climbed all the way to the top,” said Catalina Odio, Jesy’s sister who also resides in Los Angeles. “So now, you look back down, and you can see the tiny little cars, and you can’t believe that your legs actually took you that far up the mountain.”
“We don’t have, like, rocky mountains,” said Carla Orozco of San Jose, Costa Rica. “So that’s pretty cool, so we can see something different from what we see in Costa Rica.”
Her sister, Cristina Orozco, also of San Jose, commented: “We saw deer, and then a bird just flew around me. I could hear how he spread his wings while he was flying. It was really beautiful.”
My pal Dave recalls seeing the Yosemite Firefall during a family camping outing in the mid-1960s, when he was 5 years old. The evening before our hike, I attended a family gathering at which my wife Käri’s aunt and uncle, Barbara and Sam Kamilos of Carmichael, shared some of their firefall memories.
Barbara recalls seeing the firefall in the early 1950s, when she walked the Four Mile Trail with her sister and their dad. She and Sam took their two young sons to Camp Curry in the early 1960s.
“In the evening,” Sam said to Bruce Kamilos, 55, who was sitting between us, “we picked you up and one of us held you in our arms, and we went outside to where we could get a spot to see the cliff. …
“I was surprised that some of the pieces of wood were pretty big pieces of lumber,” Sam continued. “It wasn’t just little sticks going over, but major pieces. It kind of looked like demolition stuff, they’d been tearing down a cabin or something.”
“It just kept coming, that’s what was so impressive,” Barbara said. “It wasn’t just one shot.”
“The importance of some of these things tends to inflate after it’s all over,” Sam added. “I think it was just kind of one of the things you expected to do at Yosemite.”
Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell, 916-321-1163.
Yosemite National Park
Free admission through Sunday, Aug. 28, as part of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday weekend. Also enter for free on Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Park) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
If you are interested in seeing a natural “firefall” at Yosemite, there is a chance every February that Horsetail Fall will resemble a flaming stream going down a cliff side. But conditions, which include snowpack, temperatures and sky clarity, must be just right. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/waterfalls.htm.
Want to avoid traffic and parking hassles in Yosemite Valley? My friend Dave D’Antonio and I did when we visited in mid-July by taking the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus from the Merced Amtrak station for $25 round trip; the fare includes park admission. YARTS also has routes to the valley that originate in Fresno, Mammoth Lakes and Sonora. For more information, visit yarts.com.