About Horsetail Falls
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.
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. 🙂
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.
However, since that visit, this otherwise obscure ephemeral waterfall became quite popular.
We witnessed this firsthand on a 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.
As the viral sensation continued to get even more popular with social media apps like Instagram becoming more mainstream, the National Park Service had to take on an even more active role in managing the event.
That was because the crowds and the associated behavior (which includes trampling, litter, and tensions between participants), caused irreparable damage to the Merced River banks, especially near the Southside Drive.
Therefore, on our third attempt at witnessing the firefall in 2022, we had to adapt to Firefall Viewing Restrictions, especially concerning a wholesale closure of the entire viewing possibilities between the Southside Drive and the Merced River.
As a result of these restrictions, we now had to work for our viewing by walking along the Northside Drive about 1.5 miles (each way) from the Yosemite Lodge to the familiar viewing positions in the vicinity of the El Capitan Picnic Area.
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 visits were 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, 2013 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.
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.
The Original Firefall
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 the coals over the cliff 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 (let alone the wildfire hazard that it created).
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. For specific information about the latest rules regarding the Horsetail Falls Natural Firefall, see this page.
The spot from where Julie got her successful firefall shot on her iPhone (see photo at the top of this page) was about 0.9 miles east of the Cathedral Beach car park on the Southside Drive.
It wasn’t too hard to find this spot because there were signs and diversion cones to indicate to us where we should start to find parking.
However, with the viral popularity of the Horsetail Falls Firefall Event and the riverside erosion, the National Park Service has instituted restrictions to prevent viewing the phenomenon from this spot since 2022.
Conversely, the spot from where I took my first photographs of Horsetail Falls were from the north of the Merced River, which can be reached at around 1.5-1.7 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.
As the firefall event became more popular, we had been able to use the temporary signs and cones as guides, and eventually arrive at pullouts along this unsigned stretch of road yielding views of Horsetail Falls above and between trees.
Since the road is one-way, it was worth slowing down and not being too picky about where we were parking because we could have ended up driving a large loop just to get back to this point.
Now with the restrictions that took place in 2022, the Horsetail Falls Firefall Event was no longer a drive-to attraction unless you have handicap access.
We actually had to walk the Northside Drive from the Yosemite Lodge (though there was another parking lot across Camp 4 another 1/4-mile to the west).
This walk felt more like a pilgrimage than a hike, but we get the idea behind the NPS making visitors earn their firefall viewing to mitigate the impact of crowds that you inevitably get when something is too easy to attain.
Given the frequency of changes and management to the firefall viewing event, you may want to look at the latest information on the NPS website.
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.
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