Stop the madness
Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
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.
Fresh Snow, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite
Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
First Light, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
Wonderland, Yosemite Valley
Reflection, El Capitan winter morning, Yosemite
Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley
Winter Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Winter Twilight Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Winter Arrives, El Capitan, Yosemite
Glorious Morning, Yosemite Valley
Moonlight Cathedral, Valley View, Yosemite
Winter Cascade, Cascade Creek, Yosemite
Storm’s End, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Winter Light, El Capitan, Yosemite
Moonlight Magic, El Capitan, Yosemite
Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Fall into Winter, Dogwood and Bridalveil Fall in Snow, Yosemite
Old Tree, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite