(Update Feb 1, 2021) Yosemite has implemented a “day-use reservation system”. You MUST have a reservation to enter the park during daylight hours (5am to 11pm), which can be reserved at recreation.gov. If you have a campsite or hotel reservation inside the park, you already have a reservation. You CANNOT view the Fire Falls without a day-use reservation. Reservations are $2 if you have an annual park pass, or $35, which includes the normal park entry.
A few years ago 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 2021 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 east 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 2021.
As a reminder:
- There needs to be water in the waterfall.
- 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 2021:
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.
However, in 2020 Yosemite closed all Southside Drive locations. Photographers are not allowed between the river and the road due to negative impacts to the environment. These same procedures are being used again in 2021. As a result, I will only talk about the 1 location.
Also note: The park service no longer allows parking near the photograph locations. You will need to park at Yosemite Falls parking area, or on Northside Drive along El Capitan Straight.
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.
GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 41.82”, -119° 37’ 13.62”
Rules for 2021:
New rules were installed for 2020 that are being used again in 2021:
- The only location to witness Horsetail Falls will be along Northside drive, near the El Capitan Picnic Grounds
- You cannot park, stop, or unload passengers on Southside Drive
- Viewers cannot stand near the river on Southside Drive. You must view from Northside drive.
From the NPS:
Due to the popularity of the event, restrictions will be in effect from February 14 through 27, 2020 daily from noon to 7 pm. To view Horsetail Fall, park at Yosemite Falls parking (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge) and walk 1.5 miles (each way) to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area. Northside Drive will have one lane closed to vehicles so pedestrians can walk on the road between the viewing area and Yosemite Falls parking. Bring warm clothes and a headlamp or flashlight. Parking, stopping, or unloading passengers will be prohibited between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover. Vehicles displaying a disability placard will be allowed to drive to El Capitan Picnic Area and park in turnouts on the north side of Northside Drive.https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
Southside Drive will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited between El Capitan Crossover to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Pedestrians will also be prohibited from traveling on or adjacent to the road in this area. From Cathedral Beach Picnic Area to Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, the area between the road and the Merced River will also be closed to all entry.
El Capitan Crossover (the road connecting Northside and Southside Drives near El Capitan) will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited.
No permit or reservation is required to view Horsetail Fall.
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).
- 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!