Thinking About Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall

Horsetail Fall
Horsetail Fall

Horsetail Fall. Yosemite National Park, California. February 15, 2010. © Copyright 2010 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved. *

The silver strand of Horsetail Fall and water reflecting on surrounding cliffs in late afternoon light, Yosemite Valley.

This being February, it seems that Horsetail Fall has again (and more every year) become a hot topic. Horsetail Fall, sometimes referred to as the “Natural Firefall” is the increasingly famous seasonal waterfall that can appear along the east face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  At about this time of year, when all the conditions fall in place, the ribbon of water from the fall may be spotlighted by the last light of the setting sun and create a beautiful band of glowing, colorful water against the dark backdrop of steep granite.

The conjunction of elements required to produce the most spectacular Horsetail Fall “event” is complex. First, it depends on the geological coincidences of the placement of the fall in a spot hight on the face of El Capitan that receives a narrow beam of sunset light during two brief periods each year. Second, the fall must be running – in roughly the middle of winter. The area supplying water to the fall is high enough to be snow-covered in a typical winter, but low enough that snow can melt and start the fall flowing even in the cold season – but this is not a sure thing. Essentially, there must be snow and then some warmth to melt it, or else some significant warm rain. Third, a series of meteorological events must play out just right. Obviously, the upper face of El Capitan must be clear of clouds. (Yosemite Valley fog and clouds ringing the cliffs are rather common in the winter season.) The sky west of the Valley must also be clear all the way to the horizon since the best color occurs just before the sun hits the horizon. (Many of us can tell stories of light getting better and better, leading toward a brilliant finale… and then the “lights going out” just at the peak of color as the sun dropped behind clouds far to the west.)

Hundreds and hundreds of photographers now show up to try to photograph the thing. I’ve done it a few times myself, though I’m much less inclined to do so these days – partly because “I’ve done it” and partly because I’m often busy photographing other things! My best memory of photographing Horsetail was several years ago when the park service was doing major road work on Northside Drive, the road along that side of the Valley. The road was completely closed as were the cross-valley roads that travel between Southside and Northside Drives. It had snowed and there was perhaps a foot or more of snow along this section of the Valley floor. I wanted to photograph the fall from a location on the north side of the Valley, so my only option was to put on lots of warm clothes, load up a pack of camera and other gear, and walk across the Valley in the snow. I arrived long before sunset, so I first walked west to El Capitan Meadow where I photographed in rare quiet and solitude on this car-free and carefree late afternoon. Later, I quietly walked back along the road to my shooting location and found perhaps three or four other people there. This quiet, peaceful, and relatively uncrowded experience became my touchstone for photographing Horsetail.

I went back a few more times, learning about the locations from which the feature may be photographed and learning to understand more about the conditions that are required. I became a bit of a Horsetail expert, if I do say so myself. But in the past few years, as more people have acquired digital cameras and become more serious about their photography and as the renown of the fall has increased, the crowds have also increased to the point that I’m less inclined to join them. That said, there is still magic in the experience – more in the experience of being there than in the experience of photographing the fall. (Frankly, it is very hard to produce a photograph of Horsetail that is different enough to carry a personal stamp.) A few years ago, perhaps the last time I photographed Horsetail, I realized that it is a minor miracle to find yourself standing in the snow on a winter evening in the marvel that is Yosemite Valley, among scores of other people who have also come there, many from great distances, merely to watch sunset light slowly move across the face of a huge granite cliff and for a brief instant, if you are especially fortunate, create an ephemeral luminous miracle high overhead.

* Note: In a wonderful video about Horsetail Fall, Ansel Adams’ son Michael Adams speaks eloquently about his father’s early photographs of the phenomenon. I was intrigued by his comment that Ansel might not have photographed the fall the way we do now because he couldn’t – since he worked with black and white photography. Thinking of this, and being full of myself today, I thought that I’d post a black and white photograph of Horsetail Fall! :-)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

5 thoughts on “Thinking About Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall”

  1. Dan – Nicely written and photographed. I have never experienced Horsetail Falls, nor been to the Valley during the right window of time. I’m just curious whether you’ve seen any photos with a broader perspective on the cliff face – or if that is even possible from locations where the falls are visible. It seems as though most of the famous images of Horsetail are fairly tight shots, with the Falls dominating the image. What does the area around Horsetail look like?

    1. Hi, Richard:

      It is possible, from at least one of the locations, to get a somewhat broader perspective. However these options are limited, in my view, and there are other reasons that the subject is typically shot with a long lens. (Though perhaps not as long as what you might need to photograph geese!) To get the “molten lava” effect from the water in the fall, you not only need all of the elements that I wrote about, but you must also be relatively east of the fall so that the light more or less shines through the falling water. This means that you pretty much need to shoot from a fairly oblique angle to the cliff – roughly across the face from east-ish to west-ish. Though I haven’t actually tried it, I’m pretty sure that if you were to shoot it straight on – which would be possible – the light on the water would be a lot less impressive and perhaps barely light up at all.

      I think that it is also fair to say that quite a few of the photographs you see of Horsetail required a significant amount of “careful processing” in order to get the glow to be quite the way it appears. There are some tricky exposure issues when shooting almost directly into the light coming across the rocks and through the water (these things are very bright!) and against a background that can be rather dark and gray.

      As to what the area around the fall looks like… it basically comes straight over the edge of El Capitan high on the east face of the cliff. If you were looking straight on at El Cap from across the Valley, the fall would appear as a very thin and often wispy strand high and far to the right. It is a tiny thing!


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