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 I learned from chasing the Yosemite Firefall multiple times.
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 and is referred to as the Firefall. I had to learn more.
What is Horsetail Fall?
Horsetail Fall is a waterfall on the Eastern side of El Capitan that 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 winters with abundant precipitation. When conditions do align in February, Horsetail Fall showcases itself with a red-hued marvel that attracts thousands of admirers to Yosemite. Not to be confused the original Firefall on Glacier Point.
The first photos that gained this Firefall fame have been credited to Galen Rowell in 1973 even though Ansel Adams recorded this effect in the 1940s. Now you will see every CA resident with an Instagram account trying to capture ‘the perfect shot’ of this magnificent feat. In 2021, I became one of them and returned in 2022. Here is what I learned in the process.
1. Make a reservation – Last year Yosemite did not have a reservation system, combine that with a holiday weekend and the park had vehicles lining up for miles to get in. This year the $2 reservations are only required for these weekends in February: the 10–12th, 17–19th, and 24–26th. The day-use reservations have already been available via Recreation.gov but if you didn’t grab a reservation don’t worry, only 50% of the reservations available have been released. The other 50% will be released 2 days before each date at 8 am. 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!
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. What’s most 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, it was 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.
3. Go early – The Park Service will be instituting road/area restrictions (HERE’s why). For several miles of North and Southside Drive, there is no stopping, pulling over, or parking at pullouts unless displaying a disabled placard. What this means is that you have to walk at least 1.5 miles each way from wherever you may park (the closest is Yosemite Falls parking lot). Not only do you want to leave time to walk several miles, but you also want to have time to find that ‘perfect’ spot to set up shop and wait for the show. The coveted places (pullouts East of the 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 cold February, so pack some rain/winter gear and bring layers to stay warm and dry. Wear comfortable shoes for the walking, bring blankets and chairs for the waiting, and make sure to pack some fun snacks just because! Supplement your water with some hot chocolate or tea in a thermos to keep you warm. After the sun goes down you’ll want to have a light to illuminate 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 an 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. 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 or 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 Yosemite 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 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 Lasting Adventures and that will not only grant you entry into the park but you will also learn about the Natural, Native, and Geologic History that makes Yosemite so special. If you want something more active try a winter snowshoe to Dewey Point from Badger Pass or through some Sequoia Groves. The quality of your trip shouldn’t be based on whether or not you see the Yosemite Firefall, this park is gorgeous, just take a look around!
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 scenes are not indicative of what you will see in Yosemite in the surrounding weeks and months. There is so much to see in this fantastic park that it couldn’t be done in one trip anyways so come back and explore in different seasons and next time bring another friend along. This beauty is meant to be shared.
10. If you saw the Firefall in Yosemite 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.