I was first turned onto Horsetail Falls after seeing it on a small black-and-white Ansel Adams print (then consequently buying and hanging it at home). However, I didn't associate this waterfall with the firefall until I saw it in Galen Rowell's book titled Mountain Light in his "Natural Firefall" photograph. Then, Michael Frye's The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite gave me some of the specifics needed to finally act on trying to witness and capture the firefall effect myself.
While I've photographed this waterfall as early as 2004, I wasn't able to capture the firefall effect until late February 2006. During that visit, I was amused to see a few dozens of fellow photographers waiting patiently for the same thing I was looking for. It almost felt like I stumbled upon a secret society of photographers waiting for some divine event to occur. Apparently no password was needed to join them. :) Eventually as the sun set and cast a red glow on the thin, cliff-diving falls, we witnessed Horsetail Falls transform into the famed natural firefall for a few fleeting minutes before the sun sunk below the horizon.
Back then, it was still a relatively unknown event where all of us shared the special event in silence. I recalled even being able to hear our own voices echo off the valley walls while we waited patiently for the event to occur. The only thing I regretted at the time was not having a nice camera to capture the moment as our DSLR didn't arrive prior to that Yosemite trip.
However, since that visit, this otherwise obscure ephemeral waterfall became quite popular. We witnessed this firsthand on a recent trip in February 2013 when the park service closed off a lane on both the Northside and Southside Drives so people could find parking in the vacant lanes while signs were flashing "Special Event"! And instead of dozens of people beholding the natural firefall spectacle, it was now shared by perhaps thousands of people and hundreds of cars parked on both sides of Yosemite Valley.
After that second attempt at witnessing the firefall, we came to realize just how rare and fleeting this convergence of astronomy and Nature was. Indeed, in order to maximize your likelihood of seeing the falls in its firefall state, you'll need at least three things to work for you.
One, the falls needs to be flowing. This generally occurs when the snowpack above El Capitan is melting (which can be as early as December or January but I think tends to be strongest in the March-April timeframe). Even though our latest visit was under conditions where Horsetail Falls was barely flowing, it still had enough water to produce the desired firefall effect. So based on that observation, I don't think it really needs that much water, but obviously the better the flow, the better the effect. Our first attempt in 2006 was proof that more water going over Horsetail Falls produced better effects.
Two, the sun needs to set in the right position to make the falls' profile glow red. I've read that this can occur as early as January and last until the last week of February. However, I've also read in more recent postings on Michael Frye's blog that the best lighting conditions happen around the third week of February (around the 16th to the 23rd). The photograph from our first attempt was taken on February 24th in 2006. Our latest attempts in 2013 took place on February 16-17.
Finally, you must have the cooperation of the weather (i.e. it must be clear enough to let the sun's waning rays strike the waterfall with that soft red glow). If clouds are in the way, it will scatter and diffuse the light in such a way that you lose the fiery red glow. This almost happened on our February 16, 2013 attempt where the color on the light was totally muted until the sun's rays hit the falls for a few minutes right before it had set for good. Indeed, as the sun had set lower on the horizon, we could see the colors change from yellow to gold to orange then red and even a hint of purple!
One more thing I should mention is that the angle where you're viewing the waterfall also makes a huge difference in whether you see the firefall or just glowing rocks. I know this firsthand because I was in a different spot than Julie on our February 16th attempt. To make a long story short, we were separated because I was dropped off out of fear of being unable to find parking as the time was getting close.
Anyways, she managed to get the magical firefall effect on her iPhone while my results were far less interesting as I was nearly a 1/4-mile away from her with a different group of photographers. Therefore, I think the key is you want to have a more angled view so you see the waterfall's profile. The more direct the view, the lesser the contrast you're likely to get between the waterfall and the cliffs backing it. I'm still wishing that I could go back and get what Julie managed to capture on her iPhone except with the DSLR camera and tripod that I was wielding.
So how would you know if you're in the right spot or not? That's a tough one because Julie went where there was a very large crowd of hundreds of people to get her successful shot on the Southside Drive. However, I saw a similarly massive crowd at the El Capitan Picnic Area on the Northside Drive a day later with a more direct view of the falls (which I thought was suboptimal) and wondered if it was the lemmings effect or if that group knew something that I didn't. I've been told that Frye updated his book with maps showing the most strategic spots to witness the firefall, but I didn't have his latest book so I can't comment on that more.
By the way, the original firefall was a spectacle that took place back in Yosemite's early days. It consisted of people getting up to Glacier Point, setting dead branches on fire, and then pushing them over the cliff so the burning branches would fall to the valley over a thousand feet below. I was told that the greater the contribution of money collected at the bottom, the larger the fire would be made that would ultimately be pushed over the cliff. Obviously this delighted summer holiday-makers at what was then Camp Curry (now Curry Village). But eventually this practice was discontinued as it didn't fit the National Park principle of natural beauty.
Directions: The spot from where I took the photograph you see at the top of this page can be reached by driving around 1.7 miles west of Yosemite Lodge on Northside Drive. Since the pullouts and picnic area car parks weren't signposted and the Northside Drive was usually one-way going west, we used to really have to watch our odometer and stay on the slow lane as we looked for a suitable parking spot. But now with the popularity of this event, we were able to use the temporary signs and cones as guides.
There are also other pullouts along this unsigned stretch of road yielding other views of Horsetail Falls above and between pine trees, but once again since the road is one-way, it’s worth slowing down and not being too picky about where you're parking because you might end up driving a large loop just to get back to this point.
The spot from where Julie got her successful firefall shot on her iPhone was about 0.9 miles east of the Cathedral Beach car park on the Southside Drive. Once again, there was a sign and diversion cones to indicate to us where we should start to find parking.
In case you're wondering what happens if the lighting isn't quite right or you happened to be in the wrong spot, I've also posted some photos below in the photo journal when Horsetail Falls was not seen in its firefall state.
Horsetail Falls from the Southside Drive just before the sun had set for the day on February 16, 2013
This photo was taken around the same time as Julie's iPhone photo, but I was about a 1/4-mile further to the west of her, and as you can see from this photo, it was not the right place to be.
Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was still a little early for the firefall effect
The falls from the Northside Drive when it was hitting the magical time of day
View of the firefall just before the sun had set for the day as seen from the Northside Drive on February 17, 2013
Horsetail Falls when the sun was still too high on the horizon on February 24, 2006
Contextual view of Horsetail Falls just as we were about to hit the magical time of day
No firefall effect in this photo, but it certainly looks ghostly. This was taken in March 2004
The falls when the sun was setting in March 2004
Just to give you an idea of how perspective is everything, this photo of the falls was taken the very next day but was viewed straight on instead of at an angle. As you can see, the falls appears wimpy from here.