UPDATE – FEBRUARY 2017 – Over the past two years, the recent tree die-off has opened up several new vistas around the park for taking shots of the Horsetail Fall in February. While the loss of a huge number of pines throughout the valley is a tragedy and will affect the appearance of the valley for decades to come, this die-off has definitely created new opportunities for photographers as there were just a couple of spots to shoot from previously due to the view being obstructed by trees. Galen Rowell’s spot was just East of the El Capitan Picnic area, but there are now several alternate views and some of these might even be superior to Galen’s vantage point given that Galen jumped out of a truck and ran to the first open spot he could find before the light faded off of the falls. If you arrive early on the day of your shoot, you might want to do some exploring instead of camping out with the other 200 photographers who will be trying to cram into that one area. There will be another 100 or so on the South side viewing area and these photographers would also do well to explore a bit as the trees have been dying at a horrific pace during the last two years. When these trees become a hazard, the National Park Service has been cutting them down. My shots of the mist billowing up were taken well East of the traditional spot at the Picnic area last year. I chose to go for the mist, but there were several other spots… further toward the East and South that would have created the same Galen Rowell red lava effect. If you choose to explore, keep in mind that some of those fallen trees are still very unstable and could shift or roll on you. If there is any kind of a strong wind coming through the valley, I would definitely be concerned about some of those trees coming down, so use caution, even at the picnic area. Several trees came down in the last storm!
(Original Blog Post From February, 2016)
Late on a February afternoon in 1973, Galen Rowell was driving through Yosemite valley with a park ranger when suddenly he glanced up and stepped on the gas, driving twice the posted speed limit. He screeched to a stop in an illegal spot, grabbed his camera with a 300 mm lens, and hopped a fence. Instead of writing him several citations, the ranger simply handed Galen his tripod and watched as he snapped an image that has since become legendary among landscape photographers. You can find his image online or in his book Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape.
This particular effect is created by a unique set of circumstances as the last rays of the setting sun slip through a narrow gap in the Sierras sending a beam of light directly onto the Horsetail Falls, leaving the surrounding area around the falls in the shade.
Others have confused his shot with the old Fire Fall back in the 1960’s, in which eager campers would line up on the valley floor to watch park employees shovel burning embers off of the top of Glacier Point. (This tradition was discontinued in 1968 due to environmental concerns.)
Part of the lure of this particular phenomenon for photographers is the fact that you can only get these conditions during the last two weeks of February and you need quite a number of other conditions to be met in order to walk away with a fiery shot.
Since 1973, hundreds of photographers have been descending on Yosemite during the last two weeks of February with hopes of coming home with a similar shot, and the vast majority each year go home disappointed. What makes this particular effect so elusive?
A. The red/orange hue is usually only around during the last two weeks of February. While the sunset will hit the Horsetail Fall earlier in February, the the red generally doesn’t occur until after Feb 10 or so. (We definitely had wonderful color by Feb 13 in 2016. I shot on Feb 11 in 2017 and while there was plenty of Orange color, the reds never really materialized and the light began to fade before the window had narrowed to just the Falls rather than the surrounding area.)
B. The tiny stream that feeds the Horsetail Fall is pretty much dry until just after a snowstorm. If no snow has fallen above El Capitan, there won’t be any water in the Fall. Similarly, if it is too cold in the upper elevations, the snow won’t melt quickly enough for the water to make it down the stream and over the edge. In recent years of drought, the stream has usually been no more than a trickle, but if there is a heavy snow fall above the falls and the temperatures rise, the mist that is generated when the falls hit the cliff face below can be incredible. The best conditions will always be right after a storm with plenty of sun that afternoon. Keep in mind that if any clouds are in the forecast, your light could disappear and you’ll be out of luck. During my first year of trying to get a decent shot of the firefall effect, I got shut out for three days in a row and finally had to give up. It’s not unusual to have fantastic light all afternoon and then clouds begin to form within that last, critical half hour.
C. If you somehow manage to be in the park during the last two weeks of February and it just happens to be after a snowstorm and it just happens to be warm enough in the upper elevations for the snow to melt, you can still get knocked out at any time by any clouds that happen to be between the Fall and the setting sun out over the Pacific Ocean. Fog, high clouds, storm clouds….it doesn’t matter. Any clouds around at all and you are probably bang out of luck.
D. Last, but certainly not least, there is only a narrow window of real estate from which you can grab the above shot, and entire WORKSHOPS of photographers are known to set up HOURS in advance to stake out their spot. The Firefall Effect has since become so popular that park rangers have now cordoned off entire sections of the roadway to allow photographers to park at the two main viewing locations. If you were to show up 15 minutes before sunset on a weekend in late February, you’ll probably find about 200 people between you and the spot you want to be shooting from. (Update: There are now several locations on the North side of the valley, further East than the El Cap Picnic Area. Some of these spots have opened up recently as trees have been cut down due to the recent devastation caused by bark beetles.)
Keeping all of these potential barriers in mind, if you want to get a shot of the Firefall effect, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Find out in advance if the falls are even flowing before you head up. If it has been dry in the valley for weeks and there is no snow above El Capitan, chances are that the falls are not flowing. Currently, the best way to determine if the falls are flowing is to look at the time-lapse webcam footage from the Inspiration Point webcam at: http://www.halfdome.net/movies/inspiration_pt/ When you view the time lapse, watch for water movement in the morning sunlight in this area:
If you can see wispy movement inside of that red circle, the Falls are going and you are all set. It doesn’t take much water to create the effect when seen from below.
2. You basically have two choices when it comes to shooting the Horsetail Falls if you want the Firefall effect. The first location is just East of the El Capitan Picnic area. If you arrive late, parking will be a bit of a problem, but for the past couple of years, rangers have set out cones to help alleviate congestion. Once you make it to the picnic area, you should find a path leading away from the parking lot towards the North East. If it is close to sunset, you probably won’t have much of a problem finding it as it will probably be mobbed by at least 100 photographers. Remember to go as far to the East as possible and try to get a spot where you can see the bulbous outcropping above the treeline. Don’t be afraid to ask other photographers where the Horsetail Fall is located as most years, you probably won’t see anything that looks like a waterfall until just before sunset.
The second location is on the South side of the loop, maybe a half mile or so East of Cathedral Beach. Look for a spot with pullouts on either side. If the rangers continue the practice, you will find orange parking cones out at least two hours prior to sunset. Once you find a parking spot, head down to the river and look back towards El Capitan. If it is within an hour of sunset, you will have no problem finding the Falls as the setting sun will already be blazing on just a single spot of the area just below El Cap. The rest of the mountain will already be in the shade. If you are shooting from this location, it would be best to have a long lens, preferably a 300m , but you could certainly crop in from a 200 if that’s all you have with you. Although the viewing area is wide here, there are only a handful of spots where you can shoot the Falls without having trees block your view, so it is always best to arrive early.
Both locations are charted in Michael Frye’s The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite which is required reading if you are interested in shooting in Yosemite. There is also an app which goes along with the book which I believe is available for iPhone and Android.
3. For the past couple of years, I began to wonder if there were other spots to shoot the Firefall effect from and I scoured the internet looking for shots. After an exhaustive search, I managed to come up with a couple of different locations, but I couldn’t tell where they were taken from . My first guess was the Four Mile Trail which leads from the valley floor just East of Swinging Bridge up to Glacier Point. But after trying that location with some buddies of mine during February, we found that we were much too far to the East to get the effect, i.e. we were now behind another ridge to the North. I finally managed to track down one of the alternate views last year, but I won’t go into detail as to where it is located as it was a very sketchy hike. I fell at least twice and the rockslide potential in that area is substantial. I got the impression that the rangers don’t want to encourage hikers to go looking for this spot for their own safety, so I won’t promote it here other than to say that if you do decide to go looking for it, be very careful. Having said that, it’s now one of my favorite views as it shows a mirror image of the gates of the valley:
4. When Galen took his shot, he was using a 300mm lens. To really get the full effect, it would be best to use a long lens. A 200mm would work, but a 300 will get you in a bit tighter and will enable the fiery glow to fill up your frame.
To summarize, if you want to view the effect or get a decent shot, the best viewing is during the last two weeks of February, but you would need to get to one of those two locations EARLY, especially if you are attempting this on a weekend. If you are going this year, keep an eye out for me as I usually make an attempt every year. With well over double the snowfall of last year, the chances are substantially higher that this will be a good year for the Horsetail Fall.
If you are headed up there and have any questions, please feel free to post in the comments below or email me at the contact link above. I hope to see you up there this February!