Horsetail Falls

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

About Horsetail Falls


Hiking Distance: roadside
Suggested Time:

Date first visited: 2004-03-19
Date last visited: 2013-02-17

Waterfall Latitude: 37.72941
Waterfall Longitude: -119.62832

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.

Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_013_jx_20130216 - The firefall effect on Horsetail Falls captured on my wife's iPhone in late February 2013
The firefall effect on Horsetail Falls captured on my wife’s iPhone in late February 2013

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.

The Transformation of the Firefall Phenomenon

During our 2006 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. 🙂

Horsetail_Falls_056_02242006 - Horsetail Falls seen on our first attempt back in late February 2006
Horsetail Falls seen on our first attempt back in late February 2006

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.

Horsetail_Falls_031_02242006 - Horsetail Falls when the lighting wasn't quite right yet as we patiently waited for it to go red in late February 2006
Horsetail Falls when the lighting wasn’t quite right yet as we patiently waited for it to go red in late February 2006

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.

How to Witness the Firefall Effect

Indeed, in order to maximize your likelihood of seeing the falls in its firefall state, you’ll need at least four things to work for you.

1 – Horsetail Falls must 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.

2 – The Sun needs to set in the right position

This must occur in order 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.

3 – The Weather must cooperate

In other words, 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!

4 – You must be in the correct viewing position

Finally, your position or viewing angle of the waterfall 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.

Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_030_20130217 - Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was hitting the magical time of day
Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was hitting the magical time of day

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?

Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_026_20130216 - Viewing Horsetail Falls from a spot that was not quite the right place so the firefall effect was not really seen on this attempt in February 2013
Viewing Horsetail Falls from a spot that was not quite the right place so the firefall effect was not really seen on this attempt in February 2013

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.

The Original Firefall

By the way, the original firefall was a spectacle that took place back in Yosemite’s early days.

Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_037_20130217 - The fleeting firefall effect on Horsetail Falls as seen from the Northside Drive in late February 2013
The fleeting firefall effect on Horsetail Falls as seen from the Northside Drive in late February 2013

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).

However, the National Park Service ultimately discontinued this practice as it didn’t fit the National Park principle of natural beauty.

Authorities

Horsetail Falls resides in Yosemite National Park near Yosemite Village in Mariposa County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit the National Park Service website.

Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_007_20130216 - View of Horsetail Falls before the firefall lighting started taking effect as seen from the Southside Drive in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_002_jx_20130216 - At around the same time, this was the view of Horsetail Falls before the firefall lighting started taking effect from Julie's position as seen from the Southside Drive in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_013_20130216 - As I waited later, I started to see that Horsetail Falls was getting lit up by the setting sun as seen from the Southside Drive in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_007_jx_20130216 - As Julie waited at around the same time, she clearly stood in the right viewing spot because she was getting this kind of effect on Horsetail Falls as seen from the Southside Drive in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_010_jx_20130216 - Another look through Julie's perspective of the Firefall Effect as seen from the Southside Drive in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_012_jx_20130216 - Horsetail Falls from the Southside Drive just before the sun had set for the day in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ss_035_20130216 - For further proof that I had missed the correct viewing angle of Horsetail Falls during the firefall lighting, this was my view at around the same time as Julie's shot in the previous photo as seen in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_005_20130217 - On the very next day, we tried to capture the firefall effect from the Northside Drive so this was the shot when we positioned ourselves and started to wait in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_012_20130217 - Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was still a little early for the firefall effect in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_016_20130217 - Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was hitting the magical time of day
Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_025_20130217 - Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when it was hitting the magical time of day as seen in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_13_ns_035_20130217 - Horsetail Falls from the Northside Drive when the lighting was waning and starting to make the firefall effect turn more purple as seen in February 2013
Horsetail_Falls_001_02242006 - Early look at the Horsetail Falls well before it was time for the firefall effect in late February 2006
Horsetail_Falls_012_02242006 - Contextual look at the Horsetail Falls though the lighting was still a bit early for the firefall effect in late February 2006
Horsetail_Falls_031_02242006 - Horsetail Falls when the sun was still too high on the horizon
Horsetail_Falls_052_fixed_02242006 - The reddish firefall effect in late February 2006
Horsetail_Falls_003_03192004 - Horsetail Falls without the firefall effect, but it certainly looked ghostly. This was taken in March 2004
Horsetail_Falls_009_03192004 - The lighting on Horsetail Falls drifting to the bottom of its spray zone as seen in March 2004
Horsetail_Falls_011_03192004 - Context of the Horsetail Falls at sunset, but you can see there was no way a firefall effect was going to happen on this day in March 2004
Horsetail_Falls_012_03192004 - Focused look at Horsetail Falls when the sun was setting in March 2004
El_Capitan_006_03202004 - Horsetail Falls looking wimpy when viewed directly
Horsetail_Falls_014_03212004 - The wispy Horsetail Falls in morning light the next day in March 2004

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The spot from where I took the photograph of Horsetail Falls that 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.

However, 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 in the photo gallery when Horsetail Falls was not seen in its firefall state.

For a bit of context, Yosemite Valley was roughly a 6 hour drive from Los Angeles via our preferred route of the I-5 then Hwy 99 to Fresno, then Hwy 41 through Coarsegold, Oakhurst, Fish Camp, Wawona, etc. all the way to Yosemite Valley.

Panning from the top to the bottom of the falls during the magical time of day (and of the year) before zooming out to show the context of the special event.

Tagged with: firefall, el capitan, yosemite valley, yosemite, california, sierra, waterfall, mariposa, oakhurst, wawona, fresno, 41, photographers, natural firefall



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.