Yosemite Photo Conditions

Park Service Announces Permit System for Horsetail Fall

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite. I had this view to myself When I made this image near Northside Drive back in 1995. How things have changed!



Yesterday the National Park Service issues a press release announcing a new permit system for viewing Horsetail Fall. Here are the essentials:

– From February 12th through 26th there will be a special “event zone” between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover.

– During that time Southside Drive will be open to two-way traffic, with no parking allowed between the El Cap crossover and Sentinel Bridge.

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Horsetail Fall Conditions

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 19th, 2009, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail Fall at sunset, February 19th, 2009, Yosemite NP, CA, USA



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.)

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Yosemite Fall Color

Big-leaf maple leaves along the Merced River, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Big-leaf maple leaves along the Merced River, autumn, Yosemite. 19mm, 2 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, polarizer.

Claudia and I spent Friday in Yosemite Valley checking out the fall color. And it was beautiful. The big-leaf maples, in particular, were quite colorful.

It was a clear, sunny day, so there wasn’t any weather to add drama to the valley landscapes. When the weather and light aren’t that interesting I tend to narrow my focus and photograph smaller subjects. And for those subjects, conditions were perfect. The low autumn sunlight kept some parts of the valley in shade virtually all day, and that soft light was perfect for highlighting the autumn color. Plus, from the south side of the Merced River you could look toward sunlit cliffs on the north side of the valley and find beautiful, golden reflections in the shaded water.

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Autumn in the Eastern Sierra

Autumn scene along Rush Creek, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Autumn scene along Rush Creek, Inyo NF, CA, USA

We just finished our workshop on the eastern side of the Sierra. When I arrived a few days before the workshop the aspen color was rather mixed, with bare trees, green trees, and every stage in between. But the weather was cold, and things turned quickly. By the time our workshop started most of the green leaves had turned yellow and orange, and we found lots of beautiful color – particularly along the June Lake Loop.

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Deep Freeze in the High Country

Reflections in ice sculptures, Saddlebag Lake, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Reflections in sculptured ice, Saddlebag Lake, Inyo NF. Abstracts and telephoto lenses seem to go together, so I started off using my 70-200 zoom. But just to try something different I got down near the edge of the lake and tried using a wide-angle lens, and these wide-angle abstracts turned out to be some of my favorites. (35mm, 1/20 sec. at f/16, ISO 100)

This past winter’s record-setting snowpack in the Yosemite high country has left tons of snow and ice lingering into July. Tioga Pass finally opened on June 29th, and Claudia and I headed over the pass on July 3rd to scout for our Range of Light workshop. We found little snow below 9,000 feet, but above that altitude the hiking was tough, requiring either long detours to avoid snow, or traversing tedious, slippery, sun-cupped snowfields.

That meant we couldn’t get to certain locations during the workshop, but as compensation we got to photograph roaring creeks and rivers, and partially-frozen lakes. When frozen lakes melt you can often find beautiful patterns where ice and snow mix with patches of open water. On the last evening of the workshop we went to Saddlebag Lake, which had some amazing ice patterns. Better yet, the ice went into the shade around 6:30 p.m., while the rusty-colored mountainside on the opposite side of the lake stayed in the sun for another hour, casting beautiful gold and orange reflections in the water. This was kid-in-candy-store stuff to someone who likes abstracts as much as I do.

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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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