Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

This photograph from 2009 shows what an average February flow in Horsetail Fall looks like

After a wet spell in December, the rain spigot got turned off. Yosemite Valley received seven one-hundredths of an inch of rain for the entire month of January. San Francisco set a record for January that can never be broken, with no measurable precipitation.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t much water in Horsetail Fall. In fact there’s no detectable flow at all – just a little dampness near the top. But forecasters are predicting a significant storm this weekend. They’re actually expecting two pulses, one tonight, and another on Sunday night. Total rainfall for the weekend could exceed four inches if the forecasts are right.

Horsetail should get a short-term boost from this storm. Whether that boost lasts longer depends on the exact snow level. Horsetail is fed by melting snow from a small drainage on top of El Capitan lying between 6,200 and 7,600 feet. The predictions for this storm put the snow level at 8,000 feet. If the actual snow levels are a little lower, and Horsetail’s tiny watershed gets some significant snow, then the runoff from that snow melting could last for a couple of weeks and provide at least some flow during the prime photography period later this month. If the snow levels are higher, and Horsetail’s drainage gets only rain, the water will run off quickly and won’t provide a lasting increase in the flow.

But at least this storm brings some hope that Horsetail Fall could be flowing this month. It’s unlikely that Horsetail will reach even an average flow this year, like you see in the photograph above. But even a little water can be enough to see the orange, backlit glow that Horsetail is famous for, as in the photograph below from 2012. Right now there’s not even that much water in Horsetail, but this approaching storm could help if snow falls at a low enough elevation. Of course you need the right light too, which occurs from around February 16th through 23rd if skies are clear to the west at sunset.

Taking a wider view, we really need this storm, even if if the snow levels are too high to give a long-term boost to Horsetail Fall. During our three-and-a-half-year drought we’ve been teased many times by predicted storms that turned out to be weaker than expected, or have fizzled out altogether. I really hope this storm is a wet one!

If you want to follow this storm, you can track rainfall totals for Yosemite Valley here (the “raintip” season total prior to this storm was 8.19 inches). There’s also a webcam at the Badger Pass ski area, at 7,200 feet, so if it’s snowing there that means it’s snowing in the Horsetail watershed. And if Badger Pass updates snow conditions they’ll post snowfall amounts for that elevation.

— Michael Frye

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

This photograph from 2012 shows low water in Horsetail, but with the right light that can be enough

Related Post: The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.