Looking For Fire At The Horsetail Fall (Updated 2/5/17)

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?

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 6.09.31 PMA.  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:

Horsetailwebcam

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!

 

16 thoughts on “Looking For Fire At The Horsetail Fall (Updated 2/5/17)

  1. Nathan Glover

    Just spent the last hour or so reading your blog posts. Wanted to let you know that someone was reading it. All your photos are beautiful, and your tips are really helpful. Super jealous that your able to go to these locations often. I’ve only been to Yosemite once last May. Luckily it was spring so there was plenty of water going over the waterfalls. Keep up the great work on the blog!

    • William McIntosh

      Thanks for your comment, Nathan! I appreciate the encouragement and support!

  2. Eddison Esteban

    Thank you for such an educational and extremely helpful article. What a sight it must be to see this phenomenon in person. Living in SoCal I will need to make the trek up north and take a crack at this. Great photos, extremely inspiring. Thank you again for the wealth of information.

  3. William McIntosh

    You’re very welcome, Eddison and thank you for your comment. I hope you can get up there either this weekend or next as the conditions this year so much better than in years past. Yosemite just got about another foot last night and the temps are forecasted to go up again over the weekend. I’m hoping to head back up there myself so maybe I’ll run into you up there!

  4. Hi William, your post is REALLY very informative and I appreciate the efforts you have taken to share your knowledge and experience. I am eagerly looking forward to putting this knowledge to use on the coming 18th when I will travel to Yosemite. My concern is that I will be coming from Miners Inn, Mariposa by the YARTS bus and will reach the southside drive by around 4.30 pm. Will I still be able to get any decent spot or it will likely be more than full by that time ? Is there any other way I can reach Yosemite valley from mariposa other than by YARTS, coz I will reach Mariposa by 1.00 pm. Am very excited to make it to this rare event.

    • William McIntosh

      Hi Chandra. The North side by the El Capitan Picnic area generally tends to be more popular with people (and entire workshops) camping out several hours in advance for a spot. If you want to shoot from the South side, I think you’ll be fine. It will be crowded,(on President’s Day weekend expect 50-100 photographers over there) but since we’ve lost so many trees over the past two years, you may have options that were not there previously. I think 4:30 might be cutting it close though, especially on President’s Day Weekend. It took us an hour to get from Curry Village to Cook’s Meadow last year and the light on Horsetail will already be interesting by 4:30. Sunset on the 18th in Yosemite is 5:40 PM, so you might be OK, but if that bus hits traffic as people are pulling over in all directions, you might get stuck. I think YARTS should be the best option as uber might be rather expensive. I haven’t heard of other shuttle services. I haven’t taken YARTS before, but I would be interested to find out if they will actually drop you off at the South Side Firefall viewing area or if they drop you off at Cathedral Beach or Swinging Bridge and make you walk to the location. If you are locked into the 18th, keep an eye on the weather. If it’s pouring down rain with more clouds moving in from the West, you might be out of luck. If you have clear skies, I think you can count on the falls lighting up this year as they have a ton of snow up there now. (It’s still coming down today and more expected this week!) Once you find the South Side viewing area, and IF you have time, move around a bit and check out the views East and West along the river. Most photographers will camp out as soon as they have a clear shot at the falls, but if those locations are already taken and it’s just too crowded, there might be other areas available this year due to the dying trees. Good luck up there! (I’m going to try to avoid President’s Day weekend this year but I might head up after Feb 20.)

      • Thanks a ton William, for your revert and for your valuable insights. I am working on options to try and reach the spot earlier, and am hopeful of getting a uber from merced early in the morning. Am also staying back for 19th, so in case I miss 18th, then hopefully will make it the next day ! Fingers crossed. Also, am praying for skies to be clear that day !

        • William McIntosh

          Good luck Chandra! Be prepared for some good sized crowds on President’s Day weekend!

  5. Dave

    Thanks for the article. It is very informative. A few questions, please.

    1. Are you aware of any classes which won’t set me back $500 to $1100 which focus on fire of Horsetail Falls?2. Suggested minimum lense?

    3. General camera settings?

    Thanks

    • William McIntosh

      Hi Dave. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most of these workshops would feature more shooting in the park over a few days and would feature several locations rather than just the Horsetail Fall. They would probably also include some post processing tutorials on lightroom or photoshop. If your key interest is getting the firefall effect at Horsetail, I really don’t think you’ll need a workshop for that. You will definitely want a long lens and you might take less than half of what you would spend on a workshop and either rent or purchase a longer lens if you don’t already own one. I think you will want at least a 300mm from either location. If you are shooting from the South side, you’ll be a bit further away and a 400 wouldn’t be a bad idea. I think a 500 is definitely overkill as composition gets a bit more tricky when you are in that tight and I think the drama of the shot is in that long trail of orange and red against that dark cliff behind. I think Galen Rowell used a 300mm in his original shot. I was VERY inexperienced on my first trip to Yosemite to shoot the Horsetail years ago and still managed to come away with some decent shots even though the falls never really lit up. For general settings, you will definitely want a tripod and a cable release or use the delayed shutter on your camera. Most waterfall shots look nicer with a 1-3 second exposure to get some nice blur in the water, but the Horsetail is generally so small that you won’t really need much of a long exposure as the entire area around the water will glow. You’ll want to keep your ISO as low as possible and use the sharpest aperture for your particular lens, which might be around f8-f10. Most of my shots last year were shot at f8, ISO 100 with shutter speeds between .5 – 1.5 seconds. One other cool thing about shooting Horsetail in February is that generally photographers will arrive several hours early to stake out their spot. Some of them will show up early in the morning with their chairs, blankets, and thermoses of hot coffee. Since there is so much down time, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce yourself and just ask around to see what settings some of the more seasoned photographers are shooting with. There is usually a great communal feeling during the long afternoon hours as everyone knows they are there for the same thing. If you are there early, I think most photographers will be very accommodating, but if you try to get some info from them while those falls are turning red, you might be out of luck as you will hear nothing but shutters clicking in all directions once those falls light up. Best of luck if you head up there this year!

  6. Jenny

    Thank you for the tips and locations. I am going this weekend (President’s Day) and this will be my first time photographing the falls. I appreciate all of the information that you’ve provided and the link to the book.

    • William McIntosh

      Thanks Jenny! If you are going this weekend, be sure to get to your location well in advance if you want a place to park. I would allow at least 2 hours. It was insane last Saturday and that was before the official viewing season really began. We were there on President’s Day weekend last year and it was truly insane. If you try to drive around the loop after 4 PM, you’ll probably get gridlocked in as hundreds of cars will be trying to find a place to park at the last minute. Good luck up there! I hope the weather cooperates!

  7. John Moya

    Hi, Thank you so much for sharing! After reading many updates about it, I am really excited and ready! I also have Michael Frye’s app. Your shots are so amazing! I am going Tuesday Feb 21 through 25th, in hopes of catching this iconic shot 🙂 My Bucketlist Shot brewing up from many years of wanting to shoot it. Shoot me a text at 951-609-5335 if you will be there around this time. I would like to meet and shoot with you 🙂

    • William McIntosh

      Hi John – I will definitely try to send you a text if I head up there next week. I just switched to T Mobile and was very disappointed to find out that they don’t have the same coverage in Yosemite as Verizion and ATT, but at the very least I can send you a message before heading into the park. I think I lose coverage as I leave Oakhurst. Good luck up there! I hope to see your shots when you get back!

  8. Chandra

    Hi, I am traveling to Yosemite from 18th till 20th. Weather may not be favoidable but giving it a shot. Maybe the firefall may happen ! Anyone else joining that time, let me know. Will be great ṭi catch up and exchange thoughts.

    • William McIntosh

      Hi Chandra – I agree that the weather looks pretty grim for this weekend, but you never know. Sometimes those weather guys are off by 12 hours or more, so if the storm breaks early, you might be in good shape. I think those falls are far more dramatic with clouds around, so if you get super lucky, you might get light on those falls AND some clouds behind the falls. I’ve only seen one or two shots with clouds behind while the falls were lighting up, so keep your fingers crossed. I don’t think I’ll make it up there this weekend due to the crowds and rainy forecast, but good luck! Please let me know how it goes. I’d love to see your shots if you get lucky!

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