Horsetail Falls 2015 (Yosemite National Park)

Horsetail Falls 2015 (Yosemite National Park)

Each year thousands of photographers visit Yosemite National Park in hopes of seeing the famous ”Fire Falls” event at Horsetail Falls. Horsetail Falls is a seasonal waterfall that only flows after rain or as the snow melts above El Capitan. It’s located on the west side of El Capitan and can be viewed from a number of locations. This event occurs when the sun is in just the right spot to reflect off the granite behind the waterfall and cause it to light up. The sun also needs to be close to the horizon to give off its orange light and thus turn the waterfall orange. It’s amazing how much like fire and lava the water becomes! The event starts around Valentines Day each year and continues for about 2 weeks.

Everyone always asks me when the best time to view the Horsetail Fire Falls will be, and more importantly, when to photograph it. Each year I calculate when this will happen and here’s the breakdown for 2014. For those of that are savvy and know that this also occurs from the moon, I’ve included the moonlit times as well.

As a reminder:

  • There needs to be water in the waterfall. The lack of snow this year makes it unlikely as of now that Horsetail Falls will be flowing.
  • There needs to be a clear night where the clouds won’t block the sun from hitting the waterfall.
  • Arrive early as there will be many people in the park and parking spots are limited.

Sunset for 2015:

 

Horsetail 2014 Sunset Times
 

Moonlit for 215:

Moonlit is a bit more complicated because there’s a number of factors at play: the moon needs to be large (mostly full), there needs to be no clouds, and the sun has to be far enough below the horizon that it doesn’t wash out the stars.

Horsetail 2014 Moonlit Times

Where to See/Photograph Horsetail Falls:

There are 3 popular locations (click the link for Google Maps and GPS coordinates) that can be easily accessed to view and photograph Horsetail Falls on fire.
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1) El Capitan picnic area (on Northside Drive). This is the most popular (click to see Michael Chang’s photo) and most crowded view of Horsetail Falls. This is where Galen Rowell took his famous ”Natural Firefall” photo. This location provides the closest view, but it’s further east and a harsher angle and is better in late February (perhaps the last week of the Fire Falls as the sunset moves east). You can get some great photos from here but it is recommended to go further east during the early week of the Fire Falls and to hit this spot at a later week. Parking fills up really quickly (the lot was full by 2pm) so get here early!

GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 41.82”, -119° 37’ 13.62”

2) Southside Drive, West. This provides the best angle to see the actual waterfalls but from this angle the falls won’t appear to be on fire (see Eloine Chapman’s photo here). The granite rock lights up with a glorious orange glow but it may be disappointing if you’re expecting Fire Falls. I prefer the other 2 shooting locations to this one. There is a parking lot here and then a small hill to walk down.

GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 23.30”, -119° 37’ 17.56” (Park at: 37° 43’ 22.11”, -119° 37’ 12.73”)

3) Southside Drive, East. This is the location where my photo above was taken. This angle is a bit further south east than the Picnic Grounds so you’ll need a slightly longer lens (as you can see, 200mm was enough) but allows you to capture El Capitan and the falls at the same time. This viewing spot also gives you an angle to see the trees and snow above the falls. There’s a small turn-out on both sides of the road just before this spot that can handle about 10 cars. Plan on arriving by 2:30pm if you want a spot. The rangers have been known to swing by this location about 5 minutes before the falls turn on fire and give anyone parked on the road a $300 ticket (so get here early and claim your spot in the pull-out area)!

GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 39.84”, -119° 36’ 33.06” (Park at: 37° 43’ 36.74”, -119° 36’ 33.06”)

What to Bring:

 

  • Your camera (obviously), preferably an SLR, but a point-and-shoot with a longer zoom will work too.
  • A telephoto lens (100-200mm lens is enough. Full Frame cameras may want a 300mm lens).
  • A sturdy tripod (I used a crappy tripod and had some small shake from the heavy lens).
  • Cable release/remote control shutter (to avoid camera shake).
  • Warm clothes (layers, gloves, hat, sweatshirt, jacket, etc).
  • Flashlight (for after sunset).
  • Lawn chair (to sit on while you wait for sunset).
  • Snacks/Food/Water.

Recommended Settings:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority (you have a tripod to allow for slow shutter speeds and you want to make sure you have a good depth of field).
  • Aperture: Use the sharpest aperture for your lens (typically around f/8). Once you have a couple good shots you can start to play around with other apertures.
  • Focal Length: A focal length of about 100-150 should be enough (150-225mm on a full frame dSLR).
  • ISO: Lowest ”standard” ISO, to ensure the least amount of noise.
  • White Balance: Auto White-Balance. You’ll probably warm it up in post-processing.
  • Focus: Manual focus with Live-View (if available). Many photographers had trouble getting clear shots because autofocus couldn’t be obtained or it focused on the mist and not on the rocks. Turn on manual focus and image stabilization (vibration reduction on Nikon), zoom as far in as you can on live view, and manually adjust the focus until it is sharpest then turn-off image stabilization and LiveView.
  • Shutter: use a remote shutter release. It will decrease the chance of motion blur.
  • Mirror-Lockup: If you need to, use mirror-lockup to reduce motion blur. I had a crappy tripod and this was needed to get better shots.
  • Exposure Compensation: Under expose your photo. The falls are really bright and can cause a slightly overexposed photo if shooting in Matrix Metering. I found a darker image with dark granite looked best and you’ll also get a faster shutter speed and thus sharper photo.
  • Use 14-bit RAW images if you have the option. Don’t shoot in JPEG.

Tips for Shooting Horsetail Falls:

 

  • Scope out the locations before hand and choose your favorite spot.
  • The sunset starts out on the west side of the rocks during early February and progressively moves east (from left to right in the photos). If you want to see the falls all lit up in the early ”Fire Falls” season, go further east. As the sunset moves east you can move east (towards picnic grounds) to get good shots. See Steve Thuman’s shot for an example of going too early in February.
  • You need to shoot this at an angle to get the falls on fire. The ”Fire Falls” effect is created because the granite rocks face east/west and happens to reflect the February sunset. This reflection then backlights the waterfalls. Too much water and it blocks the sunset from hitting the falls. Too far west and you aren’t at an angle to see the sunset reflecting off the rocks onto the water.
  • Get there early! People started showing up at the picnic grounds by 2pm and at the Southside Dr location by 2:30. Parking is limited and you can get a $300 ticket for parking on the street!
  • Don’t get stressed if you do not see much water on the falls. The mist will light up beautifully. In fact, from the picnic grounds we couldn’t see any water but they still got a great Fire Falls!
  • Re-adjust your focus a couple minutes before sunset is supposed to start. The dropping temperatures will change your focus.
  • A really sturdy tripod is recommended. Add some weight under the center column if you can. Shutter speeds will be less than a 10th of a second and even the slightest movement can ruin your shots.
  • An L bracket on your tripod can be handy for stabilization when shooting in portrait orientation. Some lenses have a slip ring that can rotate 90º to allow you to do this without an L bracket (for example both Canon/Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses do this).
  • You do not need a polarizer. The light is soft and the polarizer didn’t do anything to enhance the photo.
  • Take a couple practice shots before hand so you can figure out your settings and make sure everything is super sharp.
  • The snow/ice that you’re standing on can be really slippery when the sun sets. There are lot of dried pine-needles on the ground so take a bunch and put it on the ground below you to provide some extra traction.
  • Be patient! You’ll be sitting outside for a while so make friends with the other photographers, ask em for tips, and just have fun!

View my Photos from Here:

Aaron M Written by:

Aaron Meyers is a landscape and wedding photographer living in Silicon Valley, CA. His love of the outdoors makes for frequent forays into the Californian wilds, where he delights in the stunning vistas of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, and the Pacific Coast.

15 Comments

  1. February 2, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Aaron,

    I found your useful information for Horsetail Falls for 2014. Thank you. Do you have a similar page for 2015?

    I am unsure if there will be enough snow melt / water for the falls to occur in Feb 2015 ?

    Thanks
    Ed

    • Aaron M
      February 4, 2015
      Reply

      Oops! Sorry Ed. This post was for 2015 but I mislabeled it as 2014! Sorry! These are the updated times for this year, assuming we get snow melt /w ater for the falls.

  2. Monika
    February 9, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Aron,

    I have a question regarding to your Horsetail Falls Sunset Calendar. We are visiting Yosemite at the end of the month (from the 27th of February), I have noticed that it’s not the best timing to photograph the Horsetail Fall (Firefallls). Would it be possible to take decent pictures on the 28th of February? Is the best condition correlates with the length of the sunset?

    Thanks,

    Monika

    • Aaron M
      February 9, 2015
      Reply

      February 28 will be pretty tough as the duration of the event is extremely short. Of course the calculation for the horsetail event isn’t exact so it may last a few minutes. By the end of February though the light will have moved far to the right of the falls, giving the rock wall behind less of a glow. If your schedule allows it, it will be better the closer to Feb 20 that you can go. The determination for how good it is depends more on where the sun is and less on how long. There’s an optimal angle between the sun and the Rockwall/waterfall and the closer to this optimal angle the better.

    • Aaron M
      February 9, 2015
      Reply

      More importantly we all need to pray for some snow and rain. Without it the waterfall won’t exist and it won’t matter what date it is 🙁

  3. Kevin
    February 12, 2015
    Reply

    Aaron,

    Is the photo above shot on January 28, 2015?

    • Aaron M
      February 12, 2015
      Reply

      The photos above were taken in 2011 when the water/snow levels were much better. I keep praying for snow/rain so I can take new ones this year but it’s looking not so good 🙁

      • Kevin
        February 12, 2015
        Reply

        Yeah, the conditions do not look so good. I was thinking of going up this weekend to just see if I can catch anything. What do you think?

  4. Liz
    February 9, 2016
    Reply

    Hi there! Love the tips, thanks much. Any good fire fall sightings yet in 2016? Its still a bit early, I know. Ill be up there on the 19th- 22nd.

    • Aaron M
      February 9, 2016
      Reply

      We may bump into each other then! I’ve seen a few people post but I think most of them have been photos from previous years. I did see one photo taken from Jan 27th on Flickr, but it’s the typical early mostly wet wall without the falls getting much light. The waterfall was running, which at this point is getting a bit of a concern, since the last snow was January 31st and it looks both warm and dry for the next week or so 🙁

  5. July 21, 2016
    Reply

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