I returned last night from my Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop and thought I’d briefly share my observations on this year’s experience (since so many people seem to be interested).
First, let’s review
Horsetail Fall is minor waterfall trickling down the east side of El Capitan’s south-facing granite in late winter and early spring, and after a rain. Even when flowing at its best, Horsetail Fall is barely visible from the floor of Yosemite Valley. But for about 2 1/2 weeks in February, thanks to a confluence of terrain and solar alignment, the very last sunset light striking El Capitan illuminates the thin strip of granite occupied by Horsetail Fall. Depending on atmospheric conditions, this light can range from amber to orange to pink to red, giving the impression that the fall has been hit with a colored spotlight. Comparisons to molten lava are apt.
Ansel Adams knew about it and photographed it, but it wasn’t until photographer and writer Galen Rowell started photographing and writing about it did it get people’s attention. When I started photographing Horsetail Fall more than 20 years ago, you could drive up to the best views on either side of the Merced River less than an hour early, find parking, and join a handful of other photographers. But when the media discovered it, Horsetail Fall became a phenomenon. Soon thousands of people were flocking to view it each February evening, praying for enough water and no clouds blocking the sunset light.
For examples of Horsetail Fall through the years, check out the gallery at the bottom of this post. And to read my tips for photographing it, read the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section.
I can confirm that our wet winter has provided enough snowpack for an at least decent flow in Horsetail Fall through the entire viewing window, which ends late February. The one wildcard in that prediction is the temperature because extreme cold can slow snowmelt and freeze the fall. We saw a little of that on Wednesday evening, when the light was good, but the flow less than what my group saw on Monday because Wednesday’s temperatures were just so cold.
Crowds this year were about normal, which means extreme, but well behaved (friendly and happy) and not a problem for anyone who doesn’t show up at the last minute. I can’t begin to express what a good job the NPS Yosemite folks do to manage the seemingly unmanageable number of people vying for their own view of the Horsetail spectacle.
My advice is to show up at least an hour early—2 hours early is better, but earlier than that is probably not necessary. Come prepared for an easy walk of at least one mile on a flat, paved road. And don’t settle for the first place you see people setting up to view—there are decent places to view from the first parking turnout on the right past Yosemite Valley Lodge, all the way down to the El Capitan Picnic Area.
The farther east you set up, the less straight-up you have to look (better, I think), but the less of the fall you see (it’s more in profile than straight-on). On breezy days, when the fall is blowing, I prefer being more east to better capture the backlit mist; on still days when Horsetail is flowing straight down, I prefer the more straight-on view closer to the picnic area (more west).
And speaking of Monday evening…
Since I bill this as a “Horsetail Fall” workshop, capturing the fall at sunset has to be my priority until it happens. This is always stressful for me because there’s no way to tell in advance whether Horsetail will light up at sunset—for every time it seemed certain to happen but didn’t, I can cite another time when it looked like there was no way it would happen, yet it did. (More on this year’s examples later.)
This Horsetail priority is tough for me because there’s nothing inherently special about the Horsetail Fall photo spots—if you’re position to photograph it and the light gets snuffed, you pretty much end up wasting a sunset. I monitor the weather reports and current conditions and try to make an educated guess, usually erring on the side of being in position (and praying)—since the people in my groups have traveled great distances and paid me money to see Horsetail Fall do its thing, I’d rather go down trying instead of opting for a better sunset spot because I didn’t think Horsetail would light up, only to find out that it did and we missed it. But still…
So anyway, Monday was our first sunset and the conditions looked good. Real good, in fact—Horsetail was flowing nicely (for Horsetail—it’s not a very impressive fall, even with lots of water), and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I got my group in place more than an hour before sunset, and we all watched the light warm beautifully, right on schedule.
Sunset this evening was 5:35. On a typical (successful) Horsetail evening, the best light starts about 5 minutes before sunset, and keeps improving until about 5 minutes after sunset, starting out gold, transitioning to orange, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, continuing until it glows an unreal red right before snuffing out.
Much to our chagrin, on this particular evening, the once promising light on Horsetail completely disappeared about 20 minutes before sunset. Since we’re standing on the valley floor with no view of the horizon, we have no way of knowing anything about the position and size of the cloud that has thwarted our dreams, and can only hope that the sun finds a hole before dropping below the horizon.
And hope we did. I tried to display a positive front, reminding everyone of the many times I’ve seen the light return about the time all hope was lost, while simultaneously checking the weather forecast for rest of the workshop on my phone and mentally planning a new strategy: Tuesday, not so good; Wednesday, maybe; Thursday (our last night), maybe.
Then, right around 5:30, the light switched back on and we were suddenly in business. After that, instead of teasing us as Horsetail seems to love doing, the light held strong all the way to the beautiful end. Better still, we enjoyed the entire spectrum of Horsetail hues, up to and including the coveted red, and ecstasy reigned. As did my relief.
With a successful Horsetail Fall experience for our first sunset, I was free to thumb my nose at the Horsetail crowds for the rest of the week, and to share other Yosemite sunset locations in blissful peace. Nevertheless, when the skies cleared on Wednesday, I gave my group the option to reprise Horsetail Fall—7 voted to try something different, and 5 wanted to give Horsetail another shot, so I arranged for those 5 to do their own Horsetail thing while I took the remaining 7 elsewhere. The rogue 5 ended up very happy with their second Horsetail show (though cold temps had cut the flow a bit), while the rest of us enjoyed a gorgeous pink and blue post-sunset Belt of Venus display above Half Dome from Tunnel View.
I think the most interesting story is what happened on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On Tuesday the forecast called for clouds and a slight chance of snow. When we set up at Valley View about 45 minutes before sunset, the top third of El Capitan was completely engulfed in clouds. Then it started snowing. So imagine my surprise when, about 20 minutes before sunset, the rest of El Capitan appeared and everything suddenly lit up. For about 10 minutes the light was spectacular, and it looked like the Horsetail crowd about 2 miles east was was about to witness another Horsetail miracle—until the light disappeared for good about 10 minutes before sunset. But even though it didn’t happen, this experience was further confirmation that in Yosemite, it’s absolutely impossible to predict the light in 5 minutes based on the light right now. (And why I never, never, never, leave a Horsetail Fall shoot early.)
The second such reminder came Thursday night, when I had my group in place for sunset beneath Half Dome. The day’s forecast called for “increasing clouds.” All afternoon, as promised, Yosemite Valley had been blanketed by a veneer of gradually thickening clouds. About the time I’d accepted that we’d have a non-sunset of pleasant, soft, gray light beneath the cloudy ceiling, Half Dome illuminated as if it had been hit by a spotlight. For 10 minutes or so, right up until sunset, we enjoyed spectacular orange light on Half Dome. I haven’t heard what the Horsetail people beneath El Capitan saw this evening, but it’s quite possible that El Capitan and Horsetail Fall lit up similarly.
The image above is from Monday evening, right around sunset. You can clearly see the orange turning to pink.
The second image is from about 3 minutes later, several minutes after sunset, near the peak of the red. The color and light faded soon after this.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Your photos are amazing and beautiful, and your apparent patience is unbelievable!
What fun and how spectacular was your adventure with the group! The photos are beautiful!