The Horsetail Fall “Firefall” is one of the most coveted photo ops in the valley. But it’s also one of the hardest to get. Here are 10 things one guide learned from attending this winter.
Photos and words by LA guide, Kara Maceross
A few years ago when I started working for Lasting Adventures I heard about a natural phenomenon that makes Horsetail Fall look like flowing lava.
Horsetail Fall is on the Eastern side of El Capitan and slides 2,030 ft to the base. At such a massive height one might assume it garners year-round attention, but the ephemeral, thin flow only occurs for a few months in a winter with abundant precipitation. When conditions do align, Horsetail Fall showcases itself with a red-hued marvel that attracts thousands of admirers to Yosemite every February. Not to be confused with the original firefall that happened on Glacier Point for nearly a hundred years, which you can read a great account of here.
The first photos that gained the Horsetail Fall Firefall fame have been credited to Galen Rowell in 1973 even though Ansel Adams recorded this effect in the 40’s. Now you will see almost every California resident with an Instagram account trying to capture ‘the perfect shot’ of this magnificent feat. In 2021, I became one of them. Here is what I learned in the process.
1. Make a reservation – Right now the park is still trying to limit the amount of visitors coming in to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by requiring advanced day-use reservations that you can get on www.recreation.gov. 80% of the reservations were released at the beginning of the month and the final 20% are released 2 days ahead of the date. If you have lodging in the park, arrive on public transportation, or have secured a tour with a company like Lasting Adventures you do not need to have this extra reservation. While this might not be a trend that lasts for years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they utilize this limited-entry system for future years since this event brings in thousands of people daily.
2. Check out the weather ahead of time but feel free to ignore it – The NPS will advise you that Mother Nature can be fickle and if a single cloud appears it could block the show. While that may be true, there is still hope on a cloudy day. It is definitely important for there to be minimal clouds in Yosemite Valley itself, what’s even more important is the cloud coverage in the West, as that is what the sun will be shining through as it makes its journey down past the horizon. The first day that I went, the forecast was partly cloudy all day and I didn’t have much hope but by the time the sun was ready to go down most of the clouds had disappeared and we saw a phenomenal show. The 2nd time that I went was predicted as a ‘peak’ day for the firefall and it was actually not as good as a few days before when there were less crowds and more clouds. Look at the weather forecast, look up to see what the sky is actually doing, and don’t be afraid to try several nights in a row.
3. Go early – One thing I know for sure the Park Service will be continuing for years is road/area restrictions (to see photographic evidence of the reason for these restrictions click HERE). For several miles of North and Southside Drive there is no stopping, pulling over, or parking at pullouts unless displaying a disabled placard. The fine: $280. What this means is that you will have to walk at least 1.5 miles each way from wherever you may park (recommended parking is Yosemite Falls parking lot by the Lodge). I went on a Thursday that wasn’t supposed to be a ‘peak’ day and the parking lots by the lodge were empty at 4:00pm, however, I also went on Sunday, February 21st which was supposed to be THE peak day and I had to park all the way at the Village and I arrived in the Valley at 2:30pm. Not only do you want to leave time to walk several miles, you want to give yourself time to find that ‘perfect’ spot to set up shop and wait for the show. The coveted places (pullouts East of El Cap picnic area) will show by the crowds of photographers that have gathered.
4. Pack for the cold, the wet, the hungry, the walk, and the dark – This phenomenon happens in February, a time when it will be cold, especially after the sun goes down. February in Yosemite sees a lot of precipitation, in fact this waterfall wouldn’t exist without it, so definitely pack some rain/winter gear to stay warm and dry. Another thing you’ll want to pack is nourishments! As stated above not only will you have about a 3-mile+ round trip walk to see the fall, but you may potentially be waiting around for a while if you get there earlier. Wear comfortable shoes, bring blankets and chairs and make sure to pack some fun snacks (charcuterie board anyone?). Supplement your water with some hot chocolate or tea in a thermos to keep you warm while you wait. After the sun goes down you’ll want to have some sort of light, a flashlight or a headlamp will do, to light your way back to your car.
5. Bring a good camera….or phone – Everywhere you turn there are tripods holding cameras with zoom lenses so big they could probably find life on Mars. While having the most expensive camera isn’t necessary, (I’ve seen shots from the newest iPhone 12 Pro Max that look amazing!) it wouldn’t hurt to bring a DSLR or Mirrorless camera to try to get some really good shots. Whichever way you go, bring what you know how to use and try to do some research ahead of time on what settings might help capture the best shots. I barely know my aperture button from my shutter thing-a-ma-doo so I can’t help you there but I know there are plenty of sites out there that give some tips on this. Also, no drones.
6. Be aware of others – This spectacular event doesn’t happen every night. It’s special. So try to respect people’s space by not crowding them, not stepping right in front of their cameras, and paying attention to where the Rangers want you to walk and stand.
7. Pack out what you pack in – Everyone that is coming to witness the firefall is no doubt mesmerized by nature. We want everyone to see these beautiful places with as little impact from humans as possible so let’s do our part by picking up trash we see, packing out what we brought, and using the port-a-potties that the NPS has put up especially for this event.
8. Hope for the best, and make the best of what is given – While the decision on whether Horsetail Fall will illuminate is not up to you, you can definitely make the most of your time in the park. Book a Winter Valley Tour with us and that will not only grant you entry into the park but you will also learn about the Natural, Native, and Geologic History that make this park so special. If you want something more active try a guided winter snowshoe to Dewey Point from Badger Pass or through some Sequoia Groves before heading back down into the valley for the sunset. The quality of your trip shouldn’t be based on whether or not you see the firefall, this park is gorgeous, just take a look around! Choose your own adventure within your groups’ ability level and go have fun while in this jewel, you might just get some other really cool photos without waiting!
9. If this is your first time in Yosemite, you MUST come back! – The viewing of this spectacular occurrence is now an EVENT. The crowds and scene is not indicative of what you will see in Yosemite in the surrounding weeks and months of this spectacle. There is so much to see in this amazing park that it couldn’t be done in one trip anyways so come back and explore in different seasons and next time bring your Mom, sister-in-law, nephew, besty, SO, etc… This beauty is meant to be shared.
10. If you saw the firefall consider yourself lucky – Despite doing countless amounts of research some days it just might not happen. Some years it never even happens at all. Some people have tried for years and never see it. Share in the excitement of the crowd that cheers and claps if you do get to see it in all of its glory because there is a reason this is a bucket list item. This is nature and it is phenomenal.
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