Photographing the Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park



Photographing the Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park by Nikhil Shahi ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube | see his previous guest posts):


Nikon D800E, Nikon 70-200 VRII

For many years, I have desired to visit Yosemite National Park to photograph the natural fire-fall. No, these aren’t the lava spewing, heat dispensing falls of fire like the ones in the LOTR movies. Rather, for a few days in February, the sun’s angle is such that it lights up ‘Horsetail Fall’ in Yosemite National Park as if it were on fire. It really is a spectacular sight and one that I have been fortunate to photograph many times over the years.


Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200 E Fl

This fall was made famous by Galen Rowell through his photograph ‘Last light on Horsetail Fall.’ Since then, throngs of photographers descend upon Yosemite during the month of February, to capture this natural wonder. This event happens twice a year – in October and in February. During October, the fall is dry and hence one cannot see the event. There are exceptions though. In October 2021, a rainstorm led to the fall flowing during the peak event window and the “firefall” came alive for a day in the park. Even in February, a few conditions have to be met before one can see this beautiful phenomenon – there should be sufficient snow melt for the fall to flow and the sun should not be obstructed by clouds around sunset (when this phenomenon takes place). During this window in February, as the evening sets in and the sun goes down, the light falling on El Capitan assumes a rich golden color. As the sun nears the horizon, the light falling on either side of the fall, gets narrower and narrower, until the light is focused just on the fall, giving the illusion that the fall is on fire.


Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200 E Fl

Traditionally, there have been two good locations to view and photograph Horsetail Fall. The most famous one is on Northside Drive, near the El Capitan Picnic Area. The other viewpoint is on Southside Drive, around a mile East of the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area. In 2019, due to increased visitation and the devastating impact on the riverbank and vegetation, Yosemite decided to close access to the Southside Drive viewpoint. Currently, visitors can only view Horsetail Fall from the Northside Drive viewpoints. A few brave ones scramble up the cliffside near the 4 mile trailhead to get an unrestricted view of the phenomenon. However, scrambling up the cliffside, strewn with snow and ice, with a 45 to 50 degree incline in places, is not for the faint of heart. I remember my first time visiting Yosemite for the ‘firefall’. My friend and I arrived at Yosemite National Park around 1 pm and found a great spot with a clear view of the fall on Southside Drive (before the restrictions went into effect). We set our chairs down, mounted our cameras on tripods and high-fived each other, excited that we had got a prime spot to photograph this event. While gorging on sandwiches and washing them down with coke, we waited for sunset and watched as the initially empty landscape, began to fill up with photographers. By 4 pm, all the good spots had gone and panic was setting in among the late arrivals. Some took to the trees and some waded into the river water to try and get that perfect composition. As the excitement mounted and the friendly chatter of all present drowned the babbling of the Merced river, ‘Ra’ decided to play dirty and hid behind some clouds.


Nikon D700, Nikon 70-200

Some of us started to get nervous, thinking that we might not see the fire-fall, while others started to pray for the clouds to part. It was really interesting to watch the reaction of people around us – people from different walks of life and interests, all hoping and praying for the clouds to part and let the sunlight through. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the clouds were completely obscuring the sun and most of us had lost hope of seeing the event. And then… Magic! The bottom of the fall started to light up as the sun’s rays broke through the clouds. “It’s happening”, I shouted out to the other photographers near me, who then looked up and ran towards their gear. Slowly, but surely, ‘Horsetail Fall’ transformed into the ‘Fire-Fall’ right before our eyes. Noisy chatter was replaced by shutter clicks, as awe-struck spectators marveled at the sight before their eyes. And then, ten minutes later, it was all gone. The ‘Fire-fall’ reverted back to ‘Horsetail Fall’, as everyone let out a collective sigh of disappointment.


Nikon D800E, Nikon 70-200 VRII

One thing is for sure – I will be back as often as possible to capture this event. I for one, just want to be in the presence of, and soak in, this indescribable beauty.

Here is a vlog of the event from February 2021:

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This post was originally posted here and is published with permission. If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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