Photographing Horsetail Fall in Yosemite (“Firefalls”)

Yosemite National Park is my favorite place on earth. It’s full of majesty, power and inspiration.

Tunnel View

For years, I wanted to capture an amazing phenomenon that happens only once a year: a waterfall of light that cascades down El Capitan, a figurative “firefall.”

Near El Capitan Picnic Area
Canon 5D Mark IV, Tamron 150-600mm
1/100 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100

For a brief two-week window, light from sunset falls perfectly on Horsetail Fall on the east side of El Capitan. The sunlight ignites the seasonal waterfall caused by snow melt in a vibrant red, orange and sometimes pink glow. The colors are so intense that it looks like it’s on fire as the rest of the valley fades into darkness.

Near El Capitan Picnic Area
Canon 5D Mark IV, Tamron 150-600mm
1/50 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100

A quick side note, some people will get annoyed if you call it the firefalls. That term came from back in the 1800s when the owners of Glacier Point Hotel in Yosemite Valley started a near-century long tradition of tossing burning embers off the top of Glacier Point. YIKES. These embers fell 3000 feet to the valley floor below and appeared as a glowing waterfall. The literal firefall attracted visitors from all across the nation and quickly became a tourist attraction for the park. Thankfully the National Park Service put a stop to it in 1968 since it was not a naturally occurring event and, you know, probably not a good idea to dump burning trash over a cliff in a place you’re trying to preserve.

Because of the pandemic, you could only enter the park if you had a reservation. This exponentially cut down the number of people who usually come; however, it was still very busy! Everyone did a great job keeping spaced out and wearing masks, but we still needed to plan to find parking and a spot to watch the sunset from hours in advance. We usually started setting up around 3:30 and even then it was sometimes difficult to find the perfect spot. Others staked their claim around noon!

The firefall is deceptive because you can’t even see it during the day. When we first got there, we couldn’t believe anything would happen! Around 5pm, the water flow started to show up.

Near El Capitan Picnic Area
Canon 5D Mark IV, Tamron 150-600mm
1/250 sec, f/5.0, ISO 100

By 5:30, the colors exploded with such brilliant intensity, we wondered how we could have ever doubted!

By 5:40, the colors disappeared except for the occasional pop of color.

Near El Capitan Picnic Area
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 70-200mm
1/100 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200

A few logistics from this year that can help you plan your next trip to Horsetail Fall: To control chaos, the park prohibited all parking on Southside Drive between the El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge from noon until 7 p.m. Also between El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge, the entire area between the Merced River and Southside Drive side was closed so we couldn’t photograph Horsetail Fall from the south bank of the Merced River. Rangers were giving out tickets ($280) if they caught you, so it wasn’t worth it. All parking on Northside Drive between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover was closed. They also prohibited stopping and unloading on this stretch of road. So basically they wanted everyone to park in the Yosemite Falls parking area just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, and walk to the viewing area at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. It was about 1.5 miles each way, but it was flat and one lane of Northside Drive was blocked off for pedestrians. The Firefall begins right after Valentine’s Day and typically lasts until around the 28th of February. We went February 21-25, and had brilliant colors every night (the best being February 22).

Now for a quick note on camera equipment: I rented a Tamron 150-600mm from George’s Camera here in San Diego because I wanted to get some super close shots.

I shoot on my Canon 5D Mark IV and also brought my 70-200mm. I love that lens because it gives you great zoom power while still being light. I switched back and forth between my 70-200mm and the 150-600mm but honestly if I ever go again I will probably just bring my 70-200mm. Since the park is mostly restricting viewing to near the El Capitan Picnic Area, you are close enough you can get away without having to use a super zoom lens like this big boy! You will also NEED NEED NEED a tripod! Keep that ISO down low so your images are as crisp as possible, and play with your shutter speed to adjust your light. Horsetail Fall is a weak flowing waterfall, so whether you shoot at 1/1000s or 1”, the fall will have the same look and texture. I prefer to keep my aperture as large as possible, and shot between f/4.0 and f/6.3.

With all that said, just remember that nature is in control and there is no way to know whether or not you will see the Firefall until you are in the park. It definitely is unpredictable but that’s part of the fun!

I’m selling prints of all my images, so contact me if you want to order one or if you have any questions about shooting in general!

Near El Capitan Picnic Area
Canon 5D Mark IV, Tamron 150-600mm
1/160 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100

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