Horsetail Fall: Yosemite’s natural firefall

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (2008)

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This is the story of my 2012 Yosemite Winter workshop Horsetail Fall shoot. For more about when, where, and how to photograph Horsetail, read my Horsetail Fall Photo Tips article. 

I returned home late last night from my annual Yosemite winter workshop. I’m happy to report that weeks of snow-dances, incantation, prayer, and just plain crossed fingers seem to have done the trick, as Yosemite Valley’s winter-long dry spell ended with two doses of snow last week. Since the most beautiful place on Earth is never more beautiful than when it’s blanketed in fresh snow, that was definitely the highlight of the week, but it was also fun to share the Horsetail Fall phenomenon with my group.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, for eleven+ months Horsetail Fall is probably Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Even at its best, this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank–we can be standing directly beneath it and I still have to guide my students’ eyes to it (“See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree….”). But for about two and a half weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten red stripe, draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises more than an hour before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south-facing flank. As the shadow advances the sunlight warms; as the unseen sun reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is Horsetail Fall; for a few minutes when the stars align–water in the fall, no clouds blocking the sun’s path to El Capitan, and enough haze to scatter all but the sun’s red rays–the fall is bathed in a red glow that resembles flowing lava. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was suspended by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset; other years bring daily of frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: For every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow found a gap just as tripods were being collapsed. I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon, just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like baby-boomers queueing for Stones tickets, securing a vantage point to capture (fingers crossed) their version of Horsetail Fall’s sunset pyrotechnics. When I lead a group it’s a always a tough call whether to sacrifice a nice Yosemite sunset at a more reliable location, or go all-in for the fickle grand prize. Generally, when February skies are cloudless, I might take my groups to the Horsetail circus multiple evenings (until we get it), because that’s what most are there for.

This year (2012) we had fresh snow and great clouds on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I targeted Thursday evening for Horsetail. Because we detoured to photograph the daily rainbow on Bridalveil Fall, I was resigned to dropping my group off, parking down the road, and walking back to the El Capitan picnic area beneath the fall (the spot best suited to large groups). But I was pleasantly surprised to find the necessary three parking spaces still available not much more than an hour before sunset. After a brief orientation (that started with helping everyone locate the fall), we all set up in fairly close proximity, practiced compositions and exposure, and shadow-watched. I’ve reached the point where I spend as much time watching the photographers as I do watching El Capitan–Horsetail Fall in February really has become an Event, not unlike waiting for the next act on the lawn at a concert.

Flow in the fall this year was low (it was bone-dry when I arrived Sunday), even by Horsetail standards, but still enough to make a photograph. We all held our breath, pleaded, and cheered as the shadow approached the fall. Shortly before sunset the amber light acquired a distinct pink hue and the chat, laughter, and cajoling died quickly in favor of clicking shutters. Instead of intensifying to the hoped-for red, the pink held for a few minutes before fading. So while we didn’t hit a home run, I think this year’s group still managed a stand-up triple.

I haven’t had a chance to get to this year’s images, so I’m posting a (better) 2008 Horsetail capture from a different spot. Despite appearances to the contrary, I didn’t have to scale shear granite to achieve this vantage point–I was in fact securely planted on the valley floor, shivering atop a snowbank beside the Merced River. Also of note is that this image was captured on February 9, earlier than many people claim the angle is right. I actually got it like this on consecutive nights that year, leading two different groups.

9 Comments on “Horsetail Fall: Yosemite’s natural firefall

  1. Simply wonderful….you certainly have it and love to share with others….much like your great article in the March 2012 edition of Outdoor Photographer. I can’t say it enough, thank you Gary

  2. Absolutely awesome!! Going next week-end but probably will see nothing as spectacular!

  3. Yosemite’s natural firefall is perhaps some of your best shots. Thank you for sharing.

    Question I have for you is which CP filter would you recommend for my 24-105L & 70-200L?
    Thanks again for sharing your photo’s and insights.

  4. Hi Gary – Truly, your blog text, here, is one of the most entertaining and delightful narratives I have seen. If there were anything that could make this fantastic phenomena even more eventful, it is certainly uplifted (as I am) by your words, here. My quest for “meeting up” with you and that guy from Hollister day, my friend, one day! I do so love your work and your words..thatnk you so much for all that you do and all thet you give to us. This is wonderful!! I wish you all the very best ,sir!

    • Thanks, Denny. It would be great to have you in a workshop someday, or even just to meet face-to-face at Starbucks–I know you have some roots out here, so I imagine you get out here from time to time.

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