Yosemite Horsetail Fall update, February 2020

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall Light, Merced River, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall Light (but no visible water), Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
3 2/3 seconds
ISO 100

On Thursday night I returned from a week in Yosemite following back-to-back workshops there. The featured goal of my first workshop was to photograph the full moon; the highlight of the second workshop was supposed to be Horsetail Fall. The moon cooperated wonderfully, but Horsetail Fall…? Well…, I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

First, the good news…

Despite reports to the contrary, Horsetail Fall is flowing (and I have the pictures to prove it). Not only that, with no clouds in the forecast, Horsetail Fall’s normally fickle warm sunset light suddenly looks like a pretty good bet. What could possibly go wrong?

The bad news

Unfortunately, you can’t actually see Horsetail Fall’s water from Yosemite Valley (and I have the picture to prove it).

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall Light, Merced River, Yosemite

This is what Horsetail Fall looked like at sunset the same day (about 30 minutes later), from the same location in Yosemite Valley (no visible water, even when I zoom way into my 61 megapixel file)

More bad news

No rain or snow is in California’s forecast for at least ten days, which means little chance for more water in the fall. Also, as my group wrapped up our workshop on Thursday evening, the National Park Service was putting up cones and signs to prevent people from accessing all Horsetail Fall views on Southside Drive (such as the one in the above images) between noon and 7 p.m. through February 27.

This is why we can’t have nice things

In recent years, photographers have obliviously trampled sensitive riverbank areas while jostling for Horsetail Fall vantage points. Three years ago the weight of hundreds of photographers caused an entire section of elevated riverbank to crack and slump toward the river, damage that persists and worsens each year.

Screenshot from the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall web page of a recent Southside Drive viewing experience.

I know most photographers care about and respect their subjects; it’s sad that a selfish minority have to ruin it for everyone. This problem doesn’t just apply to Yosemite; photographer abuse seems to be pretty universal and I’m afraid we’re going be dealing with more (justifiable) restrictions at other popular photo spots in the future.

The 2020 Horsetail Fall prognosis

Even without visible water, I expect hundreds of photographers, and possibly thousands on peak weekends, to attempt to view Horsetail Fall from the open vantage points on Northside Drive. The El Capitan picnic area is the epicenter of this activity—you’ll need to walk 1 1/2 miles to get there this year—but there are other spots for people with advance knowledge, or who spend a little time scouting.

About this image

As this year’s Horsetail Fall workshop group learned, a Horsetail Fall photo workshop without Horsetail Fall is not the end of the world. February’s lack of crowds (at any location that’s not Horsetail Fall) is a joy for anyone who has visited Yosemite in spring and summer. And even without snow or clouds, Yosemite Valley has some pretty spectacular in winter. Winter delivers the year’s best light to El Capitan and Yosemite Falls (the late light on Half Dome is always good), and the Merced River is low and slow enough to flash reflections nearly everywhere. Though not at their spring peak, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls flow nicely in winter, even providing nice rainbows for those who know where and when to look.

The red sunset light that colors Horsetail Fall in February also works its magic on Half Dome. In fact, when there’s no water in Horsetail, I prefer the light on Half Dome to the light on Horsetail because the entire face of Half Dome lights up all the way to sunset (and a little beyond). Another reason to favor Half Dome over a Horsetail Fall of dubious potential (dry, or a good chance clouds will block the light) is that from most of the favored Horsetail Fall vantage points, there’s not much to shoot besides Horsetail Fall—if it doesn’t put on its show, you’ve pretty much wasted a sunset. So for this year’s Horsetail Fall group, most of our sunset shoots featured Half Dome.

Nevertheless, wanting to give everyone an idea of the Horsetail Fall light, for one of our sunsets I chose a popular Merced River spot just upstream from Cathedral Beach. Unlike the most popular Horsetail Fall photo locations, the view here is wide open, with views and reflections of Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, and the Three Brothers. So regardless of the conditions, the view here is always good—maybe not the classic Horsetail perspective everyone sees, but a good compromise that shows off the Horsetail light while still offering other nice stuff to photograph at sunset.

Arriving about 40 minutes before sunset, we found a few photographers set-up by the road with telephotos trained on (virtually dry) Horsetail Fall, but we were the only ones to venture down to the river. I’d taken my group to the same spot for the morning’s first light on El Capitan, so there was no need to orient them—everyone beelined to the river and went right to work.

Unlike the morning shoot, when the group spread out, we pretty much stayed together at the best view of El Capitan. The first thing I did was attach my Sony 100-400 and 2X teleconverter to my Sony a7RIV and point it at the top of Horsetail Fall. With my camera in APS-C (1.5 magnification) mode, I maxed the digital magnification in my viewfinder and saw that there was indeed water springing from the top of El Capitan—maybe not a lot, but enough to get airborne as it reached the precipice.

After sharing the magnified view on my LCD with the rest of the group, I fired off a couple of frames as evidence of water for any skeptics. Then I went to work on El Capitan’s beautiful, rapidly warming light and its reflection in the Merced River. The light this evening did its classic Horsetail thing, warming and turning orange as the lit patch shrunk with the setting sun. Also in character, the light teased us by fading to nearly nothing about five minutes before sunset, but I knew this had to be due to an unseen cloud because El Capitan stays lit for three or four minutes after sunset.

Sure enough, just two or three minutes before sunset the light bounced back, now with a distinct orange-red hue. For the next five minutes we watched the light redden and fade (the light gets more red as the sun sets, becoming most red just before snuffing out completely), clicking frantically. That evening’s light was about as good as it gets (at least a 9 on a 1-10 scale of what I’ve seen in previous years)—in other words, with water, Horsetail Fall would have been nearly perfect. But water in the fall or not, this turned out to be a pretty successful shoot.

Join me in a Yosemite photo workshop (including next year’s Horsetail Fall)

Horsetail Fall from Many Angles

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.


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