Horsetail Fall season will be here soon. The best light occurs from around February 16th through February 23rd. During that time, if conditions are right, the waterfall is backlit by the setting sun, while the cliff behind it is in the shade, creating dramatic color and contrast.
Before February 16th, Horsetail can get beautiful sunset color, but the cliff behind it is still in the sun. After February 23rd, the sunlight gets cut off before it reaches its deepest color. Of course the angle of the sun doesn’t change dramatically between the 15th and the 16th, or between the 23rd and the 24th, so it’s possible to capture good images of Horsetail Fall a few days before or after that window. But that period between the 16th and 23rd is, as far as I can determine, the optimal time. (See this post for an in-depth discussion about the timing of this event.)
In order to see this natural spectacle, the sky to the west-southwest has to be clear, and there has to be enough water in the fall. But at this point, unfortunately, there is very little water in Horsetail.
Yosemite Valley has received 10.96 inches of rain since October 1st (the beginning of the water year in California). The average for that period is 18.7 inches, so we’re well short of that. What’s more, the few storms that have passed over Yosemite have been warm, with high snow levels. There’s a decent snowpack above 9,000 feet, but not much below that.
Horsetail is a tiny little waterfall, fed by snow melting from about a square-mile area on top of El Capitan, at an elevation of around 7,000 feet. There’s hardly any snow in that drainage right now, and there’s no precipitation in the seven-day forecast.
Of course we could still get a couple of storms between now and the third week of February. Time is running out, but there’s always hope for a last-minute miracle. 🙂
— Michael Frye
Related Posts: The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised; A Surreal Sunset
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.