In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Moon Setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, spring of 2017

Every year, around the third week of February, the sun sets at just the right angle for Horsetail Fall. With clear skies and enough water, the backlit waterfall glows with a brilliant orange color, lit by the setting sun.

Some years ago it occurred to me that the setting moon could create the same effect. In the spring of 2010 I had a chance to try this, and it worked beautifully. As I wrote back then, I walked up to one of my favorite Horsetail Fall viewing locations early in the morning, and saw an amazing sight: that beautiful, low-angle backlight on the waterfall, with the cliff behind it in the shade. It looked like sunset in February, only with stars in the sky above it. And the camera captured what my eyes couldn’t see – the orange glow created by the setting moon:

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Horsetail Fall Season

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 18th, 2016

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 18th, 2016



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.)

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Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, and a Cloud

El Capitan and Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan and Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite

I rose early yesterday morning to go up to Yosemite Valley, thinking the storm might clear just after sunrise. But showers persisted, and the sun didn’t break through until almost ten o’clock. By the time I finished photographing it was almost noon, so I decided to stay in the valley until sunset.

In the afternoon typical after-storm condensation clouds formed around the rim of the valley. Thinking those clouds might add something to a photograph of Horsetail Fall, and allow me to capture something a little different from my other images of this waterfall, I headed for a spot with a good overall view of El Cap and Horsetail.

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Horsetail Fall Update

Horsetail Fall backlit at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail Fall last night, 5:27 p.m.

February has been completely dry around here so far, with very warm temperatures. That warm weather has been melting the snow on top of El Capitan and creating a strong flow in Horsetail Fall – easily the most water in the fall since 2010. Yesterday was another clear, warm day (the high in Yosemite Valley was 67 degrees), with nearly ideal conditions for Horsetail. I wondered when I might see such conditions again, so I decided to head up to Yosemite Valley.

A first-hand look at Horsetail actually revealed less water than I expected. With the exceptionally warm weather we’ve been having I thought Horsetail would really be gushing, perhaps even approaching the high flow shown in this photograph from 1995. But nevertheless it was flowing well. I’d say the water level was a little above average for February (and, of course, way more than anything we’ve seen during the last four years of drought).

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Horsetail Fall Forecast

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.)

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