Horsetail Falls Firefall
FirefallHorsetail Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
For a short window of about two weeks each year from mid to late Feb the setting sun’s light illuminates the wispy Horsetail Falls on the east face of El Capitan. This phenomenon was first photographed by Galen Rowell in 1973 and has since evolved into an annual frenzy that now resembles a tailgate party. However, it is a remarkable natural phenomenon that is fascinating to see if you’re willing to brave the crowds and the potential disappointment that often occurs because there’s several factors that must be present for this display to manifest itself. There must be a significant enough snowpack accumulated atop of El Capitan to provide the snow needed to create the waterfall; then during the two week period the setting sun is aligned with the falls it must warm up enough for the snow to melt and the falls to actually run; there cannot be any clouds that block the sun’s rays which is often the case in the afternoon during this time of year; and finally the atmosphere itself must be clear enough to prevent any haze from blocking the sun’s light.
The Firefall viewing locations are located within Yosemite Valley, which is about 175 miles and 4 hours from Sacramento to the north via CA-99 through Manteca and then east on CA-120 until you enter Yosemite National Park. From Fresno to the south there’s a couple of routes that take about 2.5-3.0 hours, but is dependent on the weather and road conditions. The fastest route is via CA-41 through Oakhurst and Wawona, but road conditions can change quickly during the winter once you enter the surrounding Sierra National Forest, so make sure you check in advance whether or not the road is open. The alternative route is slightly longer at 120 miles via CA-99 north to CA-140 in Merced and through Mariposa. This route is also subject to closure due to winter storm activity, so you’ll want to check road conditions in advance. If both of these routes are closed the only other route is to take CA-99 to Merced and continue north on J59 (LaGrange Road) to Chinese Camp and then turn east onto CA-120 into Yosemite National Park.
There are multiple viewing locations within the valley, which I explain in more detail in the Composition Considerations section.
The challenge with these locations is that they are relatively small areas and the popularity of the event results in hundreds of people, cameras and tripods jammed together. Photographers often begin staking their claim to a tripod location shortly after sunrise, setup a camp chair and just spend the day enjoying the outdoors (assuming the weather cooperates) and communing with other photographers. The challenge is finding views of the falls that are clear of the numerous tall trees that often block the line of site. As such, there are only a handful of places that offer a clear viewpoint.
Compounding these compositional challenges is recent efforts the NPS has instituted to control the crowds and mitigate some of the damage that has been occurring to the meadows. These efforts include closing the Northside Drive to cars, implementing a lottery system for parking, and severely restricting where people can go to view the falls. This is a work-in-progress for the NPS, so you’ll need to check the Yosemite website under the Plan Your Visit > Places to Go > Waterfalls section for the most current information - https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
Assuming the roads have not been closed to parking, there are minimal parking areas on both North and South side drives, so unless you arrive very early in the morning to stake your claim, be prepared to park in one of the lots near the visitor center or the lodge and be prepared for a 1.5 mile walk each way.
Firefall 1Horsetail Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
The Classic viewing location is the closest to the falls and offers the most diversity in terms of focal length to capture more expansive images that include the surrounding face of El Capitan and the sky, especially if there are interesting clouds and color, to tight close-up photos of the falls or sections of the falls. Sometimes low clouds will develop below the rim that offer some interesting compositions and high winds can create some very interesting effects as the waterfall spray is dispersed and lights up in the air and across the face of El Capitan.
Generally, focal lengths from 100mm to 300mm are effective. Use of a polarizer is recommended to mitigate the glare that can occur from the sunlight shining on the water. A neutral density filter may also be useful as you experiment with different exposure lengths depending on how silky and diffuse you want the water to appear.
The Southside viewing location has a similar perspective as the Classic, but from a further distance. The view of the rim is expanded so that you can actually see the snow and the incline of the terrain atop of El Capitan, although you have more trees to workaround or try to incorporate as a frame depending on your focal length. Since you are located further away, longer focal lengths will be necessary to capture close-up images.
The Four Mile Trail viewing locations are located on the west pointing switchbacks within the first 0.7 miles of the trail. This is an easy, well maintained trail but, it may be snow covered and you should be prepared with micro-spikes or sturdy hiking boots with an aggressive tread if there’s snow on the trail.
As you hike up the trail there are tantalizing glimpses of El Capitan and the falls through the trees, but few locations that offer an unobstructed view. Unless you bring a very long lens and sturdy tripod that can truly keep the camera vibration free for a long exposure, the compositional opportunity is primarily to capture the falls within the larger context of El Capitan. This perspective also enables you to capture more of the snowpack and pine trees on top of El Capitan. This can be a compelling composition if there’s a colorful sky or interesting clouds along with a strong display of color in the falls to help them standout amongst the larger frame of El Capitan.
For more information regarding Horsetail Falls during this special annual phenomenon I would recommend following the blogs of Michael Frye and Gary Hart, both are Yosemite photographic experts who provide good insights each year into the conditions that are needed for the falls and excellent tips on how to capture strong images of this amazing occurrence.
Be an outsider, go on a hike!
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