Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite

We’re getting close to Horsetail Fall season, and I’m getting lots of questions about the water flow and the right time of year to photograph it.

As I said in my last post, there’s a healthy snowpack at higher elevations of Yosemite. Badger Pass ski area still reports 60 inches of snow on the ground at the base of the mountain (7,200 feet), and 72 inches at the top (8,000 feet). Horsetail’s small drainage on top of El Capitan lies at similar elevations, but faces south, and the slopes of Badger Pass face north. That means Horsetail’s drainage gets more sun, and the snow melts faster. But there should still be at least three or four feet of snow on top of El Cap right now, and it’s hard to imagine how all of that could melt between now and the third week of February. After four years of drought, it looks like we’ll finally have a good flow in Horsetail Fall at the right time of year.

But water flow is just one element. You also need the sun to set at the right angle to backlight Horsetail and make it turn orange, yet have the cliff behind it in the shade, so that the glowing, backlit, orange water is set against a dark background. My best estimate is that this happens between February 16th and 23rd, and perhaps even a few days beyond. (I delve into more detail about all that here.)

And one more thing: you need clear skies to the west-southwest (especially low down near the horizon) just before sunset. That might be a lot to ask for in this wet, stormy, El Nino winter, but it’s likely to happen at least once between February 16th and 23rd. We’ll see!

To see the firefall effect you need a profile view of the waterfall from the east-southeast, without intervening trees. There are basically two spots for that in Yosemite Valley: about 200 yards east of the El Capitan picnic area along Northside Drive, and about one mile east of the El Capitan crossover on Southside Drive. My Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite book and app give more precise directions, but it’s hard to miss these spots; if you’re there at the right time there will be dozens of cars parked along the roads near both areas.

Actually “dozens” is probably an understatement. There will be big crowds this year. Really big. For the past four years there has been little or no flow in Horsetail Fall in February, so many, many photographers have been biding their time, waiting for the right conditions, and it finally looks like they will have them. I expect record numbers of photographers and viewers to be in the park during the third week of February, so if you go, be prepared. That means, first and foremost, having some patience and tolerance for your fellow photographers. Expect to be standing tripod-to-tripod with many others. Think of it as a social occasion, rather than a chance for solitude. Also, get to your chosen location at least two or three hours before sunset, both to secure a parking place, and to find a good spot to set up your tripod. (And if the crowds are really big this year, two to three hours might not be early enough.) Bring a folding chair, warm clothes, a thermos, and a book.

With that said, I hope it’s a great year for Horsetail, and that many people get to see the light show. It’s truly a spectacular event when conditions are right. Good luck!

— Michael Frye

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

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite 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: 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.