Stop the madness

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/40 seconds
ISO 160

For some background, read about photographing Horsetail Fall

Anyone who doesn’t understand what all the Horsetail hubbub’s about hasn’t seen it. When all the conditions align—ample water (rain and/or snowmelt), sun position,  and unobstructed sunset light—there’s nothing in the world that compares. And while these convergences are rare, that doesn’t seem to deter the gawkers who show up to witness it.

Conventional wisdom says that the end of February is the best time to photograph Horsetail Fall. And if there’s one thing many years of photography has taught me, it’s that trophy-hunting photographers rarely deviate from conventional wisdom. Because Yosemite’s proximity to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and all the Central Valley cities makes it an easy target for photographers with only enough time for a quick trip, I usually avoid February’s final two weekends when I schedule my Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop. But this year I couldn’t resist the full moon, which I knew I could align with Half Dome on multiple workshop nights.

For a workshop leader, another Horsetail Fall dilemma is that when the sunset light isn’t just right, there are many much better photo options elsewhere in the park. Spending an afternoon waiting for Horsetail Fall to do its thing on a day when the light decides to take the day off (always a distinct possibility) means pretty much wasting the best time of day for photography in Yosemite. That problem is compounded by the fact that the western horizon isn’t visible from the valley floor, making it impossible to anticipate what the sunset light is going to do until it’s doing it. For each time I’ve been surprised when a shaft of light slips beneath overcast skies to illuminate El Capitan at the very last minute, I can cite a clear sky sunset that was snuffed by an unseen cloud just as the light started to get good.

My plan for this workshop was to go for Horsetail Thursday evening, and again Friday if Thursday didn’t work out, then concentrate on the moon for the final two sunsets. I figured by the time Saturday came, anyone whose life depended on photographing Horsetail Fall would have enough experience to do it on their own.

The workshop started Thursday afternoon, and because it had snowed earlier that day, I postponed the orientation until after dinner so we could go straight out and start shooting. After an hour or so photographing light-catching clouds and waterfall rainbows (Horsetail and Bridalveil Falls) from Tunnel View, we beelined to the picnic area beneath El Capitan. Despite the fact that we were far from the first photographers there, my group managed to score the last three legal spaces in the parking lot (that’s not to say others arriving after us weren’t able to employ creative parking strategies), and we found plenty of room to set up and wait with fingers crossed for the Horsetail show.

Aside from a handful of for-the-record images (to remind myself of the conditions for each year), I rarely photograph Horsetail anymore. But conditions that evening were so nice that at one point I actually had both tripods set up, one with my a7RII and 24-70 for wider images, the other with my a6000 and 70-200 for tighter compositions. Rather than the standard stand-around-and-wait-for-the-light-to-get-good experience that’s the hallmark of a Horsetail shoot, lots of water in the fall and clouds swirling on and around El Capitan made our entire 90-minute wait photographable.

While I’ve seen Horsetail get more red than what we saw, everyone was so thrilled that I was able to declare Horsetail Fall captured for 2016, freeing my group to spend the rest of the workshop’s sunsets concentrating on other things. Phew.

It wasn’t until we tried to navigate Yosemite Valley during the workshop’s final three days that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to be done with Horsetail Fall. I’ll spare you the gory details and instead just give you the bullet points of what we witnessed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday:

  • The Southside Drive parking area (with room for a dozen or so cars) closest to the most popular Horsetail View on that side of the river was full by 9 a.m. So were all the prime views of the fall at that location.
  • By 3 p.m. (sunset was about 5:45) the parked cars, crammed bumper-to-bumper in Southside Drive’s coned-off left lane, stretched two miles, from just past the Cathedral Beach to Sentinel Meadow (I clocked it on my odometer).
  • Many of the early arriving, legally parked cars were completely blocked by a second row of late-arriving cars whose drivers apparently decided that merely being able to fit into an area made it parking spot. The pinned first-arriving drivers would be stuck until the late-arriving drivers moved their cars.
  • Many cars had simply gone off-road and parked in the forest, apparently deciding that paying towing and/or ticket charges was preferred to parking legally and walking a mile or two.
  • Several times traffic in the lane that was supposed to be moving (not designated for parking) stopped long enough that drivers got out to find out what the holdup was. The only time I saw the cause, it was a driver using the driving lane to turn around and squeeze perpendicularly between two parallel-parked cars.
  • On both sides of the road, every possible square inch of forest containing even a partial view of Horsetail Fall was crammed full of tripods, sometimes stacked 100 photographers deep (I didn’t actually count, but I think that’s a pretty good estimate). I heard through the grapevine that the general mood at these scrums was testy.
  • I personally redirected many photographers poised to photograph the wrong waterfall—some were clustered around Bridalveil Fall, others had targeted Ribbon Fall.
  • We saw man getting handcuffed and arrested by rangers. It may have been a routine DUI arrest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some kind of Horsetail-view real estate violence. Interestingly, that was the only time I saw rangers all weekend—it was almost as if they’d thrown up their hands in defeat.
  • After sunset, the lines at the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria stretched out the door, and we heard from others that the cafeteria actually closed for the night while there were still hundreds outside, waiting to get in.
  • Gridlock exiting the park after sunset was so bad that some drivers just gave up.

While I can’t fix the crowds, I do believe the Horsetail Fall experience can be both rewarding and enjoyable. Despite the crowds, I still enjoy it after all these years, and I never cease to be awed by the beauty. Here my suggestions for anyone considering joining the fray next year:

  • Avoid the weekends. Period.
  • While I think the best views on Southside Drive are better than the views from (and near) the El Capitan picnic area, the dense forest near the river means far fewer good views on Southside Drive. Also, the proximity to the river means photographers will to include the river in their frame—they tend to be less than thrilled when someone encroaches on their frame. This all adds up to more tension on Southside Drive.
  • Conversely, the mood at the El Capitan picnic is generally more like a tailgate party, with people mingling and barbecuing. That’s because the view of Horsetail Fall is much more open than on Southside Drive, and poor foreground options make it almost exclusively a telephoto location. In other words, everyone is point up with a telephoto lens and no one is in anyone else’s way.
  • Arrive early, or be prepared to walk a mile or more.
  • If I weren’t leading a group and really wanted to maximize my mobility, I’d bring a bike and just park wherever it’s convenient.

And don’t forget that you have options. If the crowds become too much for you, you could simply forget Horsetail Fall and concentrate on the other great winter scenes that are everywhere in Yosemite.

Avoid the mayhem in my

2017 Yosemite Horsetail Fall and Winter Moon photo workshop

Winter in Yosemite

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.


18 Comments on “Stop the madness

  1. I had suspected that this year would be “madness” due to pent up demand after 3 years of drought. Many blogs were already talking about it and USATODAY again added fuel to the “fire” fall. Fortunately, for me I did it 4 years ago and the bucket list is checked off. But after having done it, I can say that it is NOT all that special since millions of photos are out there on the internet now and it is just like Yosemite Falls, etc. A photograph gets admired if it original and unusual. When Galen Rowell did it 1972, it was one of a kind. Now it is old news. Hopefully the madness will taper off and move on to the next big photographic craze.

  2. Not for me, I prefer as best as possible original photos not whats already been done.

  3. Great article!

    While we left on Sat morning after 3 days, much of what you describe is exactly what we saw/experienced on Friday. Fortunately we got our Horsetail images on Thursday which pleased Brenda because she gave up her seat to my brother three years ago.

    I agree that the El Cap picnic area had a tailgate atmosphere which we enjoyed. On the other hand the Southside shooting location on Thursday didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm but it wasn’t rowdy nor were the people rude. Some were quite friendly.

    When it was over we got to our car and drove to the Food Court where we ran into you and your group. When we left there we walked part way to the lower falls and shot that by moonlight – lots of fun.

    See you in Maui or maybe at the Canyon in August.

  4. Gary- you certainly summed up the chaos quite nicely!! I’m so glad that I chose Monday for my visit. I was able to get a spot at El Cap area at 3:30 PM and got a half decent shot. Off the bucket list, hurray!!

  5. HI Gary, Seems things are getting worse everywhere. Your comments make me wonder if I really desire to return to Yosemite. I found though many prime spots in the Tetons I met with similar challenges.

  6. I arrived Thursday afternoon about 4:15 pm from San Francisco for a 4 day stay and I can attest to the madness and clogged roadways. On two occasions I attempted to find parking at some of the usual places to photograph at the west end of the valley and just gave up because there was no where to park — every square foot that could hold a car was taken up. Sunday afternoon I didn’t even attempt to go to the west end of the valley.

    • If you try to do it on a weekend (and don’t have a bike), I think the best way is to park near the lodge or village and walk. It might be a couple of miles, but it’s an easy walk, and you might even beat the cars out afterward.

  7. hello there

    I think I met you a while back in Austin. Do your parents live in Austin?

    Justin Robinson



  8. Hi Gary – I just left a comment in your “Trophy Shot” WP Blog Post but thankfully I also caught up with this one here…Good Heavens…Your depiction is a very convincing story – one that I know you have noted with great care in the past, but I like your description of the Madness. If I get to one of these, it will hopefully be your 2017 trip, but still working on health issues and I know it sells out quickly, so,I have to wait and see..I remain hopeful, but, not worried …wheneverI go and whichever one(s) I get, will be a highlight for me in my world 🙂
    Thanks for your great posts always 🙂

  9. Nice article, Gary! I was teaching a private student this last Wednesday in YV. He was from Ohio, and had witnessed the event the day before so he decided that we would not “pursue” Horsetail on our day but rather he wished to work on more creative Yosemite imagery. Which we did. At sunset, as we were returning to the Ahwahnee Hotel, we saw a good spot for Horsetail, parked in the parking lane, jumped out of the car in time for the best lighting. He made some beautiful images of the fall, and we didn’t waste any time setting up hours before – 30 minutes at the most following the best light to sunset. Just thought I’d share my experience this season. First time I photographed Horsetail was 1980, and now it is so over photographed that I rarely photograph it. The highlight for my student and I last week was sharing Steve’s images with a teenage autistic boy as frames were captured. The boy’s joy at witnessing the waterfall turn orange was so pure, a great reminder of what the beauty of nature can inspire, minus the hype.

    • Thanks, Bill. That sounds like the perfect way to do Horsetail! After re-reading my original article I thought maybe I sounded a little too harsh, so I went back and tempered my tone a bit. It’s easy for us veterans (and you’re more veteran than I am) to shake our heads at all the people clamoring for their trophy shot, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s certainly worth the effort. What I hope happens is that the photographers leave it for the tourists who just want to see it. Also, I wish the photographers who’ve already photographed Horsetail would just stand aside for those who haven’t. Your story about the boy with autism really puts the whole thing in perspective—sometimes I fear photographers get so caught up in getting the shot that we fail to appreciate the beauty we’re witnessing.

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