Have you ever dreamed of witnessing a waterfall of fire? I’m not talking about a scene from a fantasy movie or a volcanic eruption, but a natural phenomenon that occurs only once a year in Yosemite National Park, when a seasonal waterfall on the eastern edge of El Capitan glows orange in the setting sun, creating the illusion of a blazing cascade of flames. This spectacle is known as the Horsetail Falls Firefall, one of the most sought-after photographic opportunities in the world.
But capturing this elusive event takes work. It requires careful planning, timing, luck, and skill. In this blog post, I’ll share everything you need about the Horsetail Falls Firefall, from its history and origin to its best viewing locations and tips. I’ll also tell you how you can learn how to capture the Horsetail Falls Firefall in an exclusive workshop to photograph this fantastic phenomenon in person and master the art of landscape photography.
What is the Horsetail Falls Firefall?
Yosemite Valley is home to countless waterfalls, some flowing year-round and some seasonal, depending on the snowmelt and rainfall. Horsetail Falls is one of the latter, and it usually flows only during winter and early spring, from December to April. It has two distinct streams and drops some 1,570 feet onto steep slabs, spraying up in a mist before continuing down another 500 feet to the bottom of El Capitan. It’s a relatively small and inconspicuous waterfall compared to the more famous Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil Falls, but it has a unique feature that makes it stand out from the rest.
For a couple of weeks, around mid-February, the fall may be lit by the setting sun, creating the illusion of a blazing waterfall. This evening spectacle lasts approximately 10 minutes in good viewing conditions and is called the “Firefall.” The Firefall phenomenon requires sufficient snowfall, a warm enough temperature to melt the snow so that there is enough water to create the fall, a clear sky, and the right angle for the sunlight to illuminate the fall. Even some haze or minor cloudiness can significantly diminish or eliminate the effect.
The Firefall is not guaranteed and depends on many factors beyond human control. Some years, it may not happen at all, or it may be visible only for a few days or even minutes. Other years, it may be more consistent and spectacular, attracting hundreds of photographers and spectators to this rare and magical sight.
The Original Yosemite Firefall
This is called “Firefall” and not the molten waterfall or something else, which stems from a fascinating history of impressive visual displays in Yosemite Valley. Between 1872 and 1968, the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel created a spectacle by pushing an actual bonfire off the edge of the cliff at Glacier Point. The cascade of red-hot embers falling down the cliff looked like a glowing waterfall of light to onlookers below. This was the original Yosemite Firefall.
Although the practice started and stopped several times over the years, by the mid-1900s, thousands of people were coming to Yosemite to watch the literal fire fall. This popular tourist attraction lasted until January of 1968, when the director of the National Park Service, George Hartzog, stopped this practice mainly because the event was inconsistent with Yosemite’s mission to protect the park’s natural wonders. In addition, many spectators were trampling the meadows, and the concessionaires had to go further into the field to find enough of their preferred red fir bark to build the fires. Not to mention the fire hazard it created.
Five years after the Yosemite Firefall ended in 1973, a talented adventure photographer named Galen Rowell accidentally stumbled across a new Firefall-like phenomenon. As he was driving out of the valley on Southside Drive, he spotted a small waterfall off the shoulder of El Capitan that looked molten in the setting sun. He leaped out of his car and ran to take a photograph – the first widely-circulated color picture of the natural Firefall in Yosemite National Park that still endures in landscape photography. With the image of the falling bonfire at Glacier Point a recent memory, the new natural phenomenon has been dubbed the natural Yosemite Firefall.
How to Photograph the Horsetail Falls Firefall
The Firefall was made famous by Galen Rowell, who published his photograph in his memoir Mountain Light in 1986. The Firefall has since gained popularity among photographers wishing to capture their photos of this epic scene. But photographing the Firefall is more challenging than it may seem. It requires a lot of preparation, patience, and luck.
First of all, you need to know when to go. The Firefall can happen twice a year, once in mid-to-late February and again in October when the sun sets at the right angle to hit the waterfall. Because Horsetail Falls needs to be flowing, October is the rarer event of the two and is only occasionally seen. Thus, February is the one that draws all the attention and all the photographers. You can use online tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills to calculate the best dates and times for the Firefall.
Second, you need to know where to go. The Firefall can only be seen from specific locations in Yosemite Valley, where the waterfall and the sun are aligned. The most popular and accessible spots are along the valley’s north side, near the El Capitan Picnic Area and the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area. These areas offer a clear view of the waterfall and the sun and have ample parking and facilities. However, they can also get very crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, so you need to arrive early to secure your spot. You also need a reservation to enter the park during the peak Firefall dates, as the park implements a temporary vehicle reservation system to manage traffic and congestion.
Third, you need to know what to bring. The Firefall is a challenging subject to photograph, and you need the right equipment and skills to capture it well. Generally speaking, here are some of the essential items you will need:
- A DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows you to shoot in manual mode and RAW format. This will give you more control and flexibility over your exposure and post-processing.
- A telephoto lens that can zoom into the waterfall and fill the frame. I’ve found that the best lenses to use are 24-70mm or equivalent and 70-200mm or 100-400mm. A wide-angle lens lets you capture the surrounding landscape, and a zoom lens will help you fill the frame with the Firefall.
- A sturdy tripod that supports and keeps your camera and lens stable. The Firefall happens in low-light conditions, and you will need to use slow shutter speeds to capture the motion and glow of the waterfall. A tripod will also help you compose your shot and keep it consistent.
- Other accessories to consider are a remote shutter release or a self-timer that can trigger your camera without touching it, a polarizing filter to reduce glare and reflections and enhance contrast, or a graduated neutral density filter to balance the exposure between the bright sky and the dark foreground.
- Warm winter clothes to keep you comfortable and cozy in the cold (and snowy) while you wait for the Firefall.
Fourth, here are a few final tips and steps to ensure you get the best shot possible:
- Arrive early and scout your location. The Firefall can attract many people, and you must secure your spot well in advance. Scout for the best angles and composition for your shot, deciding whether you want to include some foreground elements (such as trees or the river) to add depth and interest to your image.
- Once you have found your spot, set up your camera and tripod and compose your shot. Use manual mode and RAW format, adjusting your settings according to the light and your creative vision. Meter specifically for the falls using center weight or highlight metering. Check your focus to ensure it is sharp and accurate – you should set your camera to manual focus once you have your settings and composition.
- Wait for the magic moment. The Firefall usually happens around 15 to 30 minutes before sunset. Be patient and wait for the right moment when the sun hits the waterfall and turns it orange. The window of light is between 5:28 and 5:40 PM on the 22nd, and you should be prepared to act quickly.
How to Capture the Horsetail Falls Firefall at Yosemite
Thank you for taking this journey into the captivating world of photographing the mesmerizing Firefall. It’s an experience that will leave an unforgettable mark on your memory. If you’re eager to uncover more about the breathtaking wonders of Yosemite during the winter season, then you’re in luck! I am thrilled to announce the upcoming Yosemite in Winter photography workshop in February 2024. I will personally guide you to the most picturesque locations to capture the Firefall’s ethereal beauty alongside other awe-inspiring snow, ice, and wildlife scenes.
This exclusive workshop is limited to just 6 participants, making it a rare opportunity to join me on this unforgettable adventure. Enhance your photography skills, refine your image editing techniques, and showcase your stories to the world. Don’t miss out on this extraordinary chance – visit my website or contact me directly to sign up or request further details.