It looks like there should be plenty of water in Horsetail Fall this month. Yosemite Valley has received almost ten inches of rain over the past week, and that abundant rainfall has boosted the flow in all of Yosemite’s waterfalls, including Horsetail. In fact the Merced River reached minor flood stage Wednesday night. While the rain runoff will diminish quickly, there’s a healthy snowpack at the higher elevations of Yosemite, which should keep Horsetail flowing for awhile. I expect above-average flow in Horsetail this 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 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.
Because of the high water flow, I expect large numbers of photographers to attempt to photograph Horsetail Fall this year. 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.
Good luck out there!
— Michael Frye
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.