Horsetail Falls 2018 Date & Time Predictions (Yosemite National Park)

Update (Feb 22, 2018, 10:37pm): 4-5 inches of snow has fallen in Yosemite, with more snow coming. With the cold temperatures, Horsetail Falls is not flowing. We’ll need temperatures to warm up if the falls will start. Even if it does, expect it to be only a small amount of water.


Update (Feb 19, 2018): Next weekend may be your best chance, with a small amount of snow in the forecast. Stay tuned.
Update (Feb 18, 2018): Horsetail Falls is dry. I do not recommend visiting this year.

Update (2018): Yosemite has instituted some new rules, especially pertaining to parking and to getting to the viewing locations. See more information below.

Last year I posted the times for the Horsetail Fire Falls event and discovered hundreds of people had found my blog and printed out the times! Thank you all for finding my post and taking advantage! I’ll continue to post them for each year.

Scroll down for the 2018 times…

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.

Horsetail Fire Falls from 2016
Horsetail Fire Falls from 2016

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 2018. 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. Last year we finally had a good year. Let’s pray the rain/snow continues and we get another good Fire Falls year!
  • There needs to be a clear night where the clouds to the west 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 2018:

Predicted date and times for Sunset Horsetail Falls, 2018
Predicted date and times for Sunset Horsetail Falls, 2018

Moonlit for 2018:

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.

Predicted date and times for Moonlit Horsetail Falls, 2018
Predicted date and times for Moonlit Horsetail Falls, 2018

There’s a slight chance that you’ll get to see a moonlit falls this year, if the conditions turn out OK.

  • Ideally the moon would be at an Azimuth (position in the sky) between 252° and 258°, however, on May 26th it’ll be at 260°. The elevation of the moon is where we want it, so we should get some light hitting the falls. The biggest worry is whether there will be water at the end of may in the falls.
  • On May 27th, the moon has an Azimuth of 254°, right in the zone that we want, with an elevation of 2.27° (in the acceptable range), making May 27th the best night to see Horsetail light up by the moon. The one area of worry is that the sun is at -12.1° when this occurs, right around nautical dawn when only the brightest stars are visible. The sun may start to wash out those beautiful stars in your photos.
  • In June, I do not expect Horsetail Falls to have any water.

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.
Horsetail width =

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 for 2018 is by permit only, so get your reservation ahead-of-time, or be one of the lucky day-of permit winners!

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”)
(As of 2018, you can no longer park on Southside Drive)

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”)
(As of 2018, you can no longer park on Southside Drive)

New Rules for 2018:

  • In order to control traffic and the massive crowds, Yosemite National park is instituting new rules. Please see their website for the most current information: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
  • Parking Permits: Parking is no longer allowed on the roads near the viewing locations unless you have one of ~200 permits. See the above link for obtaining a permit.
    • Otherwise you’ll need to park at Day Use Parking, or another one of the approved parking locations and either walk, or take the shuttle to Yosemite Lodge, and walk from there
    • There is no parking on South Side Drive anymore, so your only way to photograph there, is to walk
  • The small parking lots by Swinging Bridge, Sentinal Beach, etc will be closed

 

Horsetail Falls Event Map
Horsetail Falls Event Map

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.

25 Comments

  1. Amir Seifi
    January 5, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for the date and times.

  2. DENIS BEAUVAIS
    January 11, 2018
    Reply

    I like your work, and I appreciate you sharing your field data.

    Denis Beauvais
    Tsawwassen, BC, Canada / Point Roberts, WA.

  3. Gabriela Hernandez
    January 15, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you soo much for all the research and passion you put into this. I am going Feb 21 this year and I’m really hoping I can see this amazing phenomenon happen live!!:)

  4. Linda
    January 18, 2018
    Reply

    Yes I used your blog last year to learn about Firefall and timeline, we went on your recommendation and had an awesome experience! thank you for updating 2018.

  5. L. Duncan
    January 18, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you so much for all the information. Yosemite is one of my very favorite places lots of memories.

  6. January 19, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks for the info! This will be my first year to try to capture it, and I appreciate your blog. Best of luck!

  7. January 29, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for this useful info! We get asked a lot, so we will share and make sure you get tagged and credit 🙂
    Cheers,

    Team Redwoods

  8. M and P
    January 31, 2018
    Reply

    We so appreciate your recommendations for a successful Fire Falls experience at Horsetail Falls. We are excited to get to try out your suggestions Feb 20 & 21 this year. Thank you immensely for sharing!!

  9. February 3, 2018
    Reply

    Narrow Gauge Inn loves you and your blog sir!!

  10. Victor
    February 5, 2018
    Reply

    Wonderful Information Aaron. Thanks for sharing. Do you know if there’s enough snowmelt for a visit on Monday 2/12?

    • Aaron M
      February 18, 2018
      Reply

      I realize I’m a little late, but this year is looking like a no-go for Horsetail Falls 🙁

  11. Ian J
    February 10, 2018
    Reply

    Hey Aaron! I’m flying in from the UK and your blog has been amazingly helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Looking at the GPS coordinates for the Southside Drive East location, Google maps puts your recommended shooting spot right in the middle of the Merced river? Is that correct? Or do you shoot from the bank of the river?

    • Aaron M
      February 18, 2018
      Reply

      Hi Ian. If you haven’t already arrived, I’d recommend changing your plans. With no snow this year, Horsetail Falls sadly isn’t running 🙁 There will be no fire falls event this year unless a miracle of nature happens.

      You can shoot from the bank of the Merced, however you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of people. If you’re the crazy one to bring some waders, you can go out into the Merced (be careful of the current, check conditions before you go), and get a better view, one without any tree brancehs in it.

  12. February 12, 2018
    Reply

    This was extremely helpful! Can’t wait to see the firefall!

  13. David Sabet
    February 14, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks for the information. Was just in the park and unless a miraculous storm occurs there will be no falls this year. Also be aware the park is changing traffic flow for the next two weeks and access to the south side is very limited.

  14. William Leveson-Gower
    February 18, 2018
    Reply

    Aaron,

    I am writing you right now from my room at the half dome lodge, the horsetail waterfall does not have any water this year !, and no water means no water.

    I am very disappointed with the guys over here, I booked a tour a week ago and they didn’t mention anything at all, earlier today I stopped by at the tour desk because my wife got the rumor, I asked to the guy ( Jeff ) and he reassured me that the waterfall has water. I won’t trust these guys again.

    Tonight we are getting some snow but Is not enough.

    May be next year,

    • Aaron M
      February 18, 2018
      Reply

      Hi William. I’m sorry to hear that they told you it was running. With the lack of snow this year, there was no chance it’s going to run. Unless we have a fluke (miracle) of nature, it’s looking poor.

  15. Anoorag
    February 19, 2018
    Reply

    Hey Aaron,

    With the snowfall (est 6-10 in) today, do you think there is a chance for the falls to revive?

    • Aaron M
      February 19, 2018
      Reply

      I’m still waiting for reports to come in from my contacts within Yosemite, however, looking at the Webcams, there’s still very little snow on top of El Capitan, which is what feeds Horsetail. There’s a very very very slight chance that it may trickle for a few hours, but the amount of “fire falls” would be extremely small. Most likely you’ll have just a photo of a wet (and glowing) rock-wall. If you’re in the park already, it would be worth checking out, but if you have to drive a few hours, I’d wait till next year.

      • Anoorag
        February 19, 2018
        Reply

        Makes sense. Thank you! And as always, thanks a ton for putting together all this info for others.

        • Aaron M
          February 19, 2018
          Reply

          Next weekend may be your best chance. It’s looking like a couple more inches of snow on Thursday, then slightly warmer over the weekend. Still cold, so it will struggle to melt the snow enough, but I think there will be something flowing by the weekend. Next week is when the precipitation really gets promising, but the firefall window will close up. Send us any reports you find!

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