Horsetail Fall In February

For just a few days each year, this Yosemite landmark is illuminated by the sun for a special display

For photographers who will brave the cold and the roads, one of Yosemite Valley’s most impressive sights is the glowing of Horsetail Fall in February.

There’s a waterfall in Yosemite National Park that, every February, becomes the object of attention for photographers worldwide. The sun and the shadows come together at the right time of day in the middle two weeks of February to give a patient and persistent photographer a dramatic shot unattainable anywhere else. But first, to truly appreciate the significance of this annual event, a bit of background is in order.

In 1878, James McCauley, owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House, would entertain his guests with a large campfire built on the 3,000-foot cliff that looked out over Yosemite Valley so folks could enjoy the fire, songs and sunset. Once these festivities were concluded, McCauley would push the glowing coals over the edge. People in the valley below commented on the dramatic sight, and encouraged him to continue to push the coals over the edge. Word spread, and soon the hat was passed to collect an “incentive” for him to continue, which he did.

Over the years, visitors at Camp Curry, a guest camp that was situated directly below Glacier Point, would gather to witness the display. There evolved an entire ceremony to dramatize the event, with a strong-voiced person hollering up “Let the fire fall!” at which time the now-huge pile of red-fir-bark coals would be pushed over the edge of Glacier Point by men with long poles to the delight of the gathered multitudes below, with songs and the “oohs and ahs” of thrilled visitors. This became a summer tradition, held each night at 9 p.m.

Fast-forward to 1968, and visitation to Yosemite National Park had swelled to 2.2 million. The crowds were so huge that meadows were being trampled, traffic jams were the norm, and crime increased as everyone’s attention was riveted on the firefall and not on their campsites. As a result, George Hartzog, director of the National Park Service, ordered the firefall discontinued. To this day, people still reminisce about the firefall, and every so often, there’s an attempt to restart the tradition on the 4th of July, but to no avail.

Five years later, the famed photographer Galen Rowell noticed a phenomenon on a small, nondescript waterfall on the east side of El Capitan. Seeing the late-afternoon sun hit the water at just the right angle, it reminded him of the now-defunct firefall, and the rest is history.

Today, hundreds of photographers can be seen in mid-February gathering at various points along Northside and Southside Drives, positioning for the best angle to capture the brief moment the sun is in line with the vertical flow of water on Horsetail Fall.

The two best places to shoot Horsetail Fall are the picnic area near the east shoulder of El Capitan and the banks of the Merced River near Southside Drive just west of Swinging Bridge. The park service built two turnouts at this location when redesigning the road just to accommodate the surge of photographers who descend here each February.

In mid-February, the sun sets between 5:30 and 5:50 p.m. The sun aligns with the waterfall about 30 to 45 minutes before actual sunset. My advice is to scope out your location early and be set up an hour before the golden hour to ensure you aren’t crowded out of your position. Trust me, the crowds get there early for the best angle positions.

Technically, you should shoot with a 70-200mm lens and a polarizing filter (to isolate the flowing water from the reflective, glistening surrounding rock) at ISO 100, ƒ/2.8, with a shutter speed of approximately 1/160 to 1/250 sec. Of course, these settings will vary with conditions, but this will get you started.

Capturing this vista isn’t as easy as it may appear; the weather has to cooperate. It must be clear, obviously, and water must be flowing. Clear skies at this time of year and this time of day aren’t that common. Frequently, clouds accumulate at sunset, blocking strong illumination of the waterfall. So, the best thing to do is remain flexible and patient.

Good luck, and I’ll see you there!

Phil Hawkins conducts photography workshops in Yosemite National Park throughout the year; visit yosemite for more information. You can see more of Hawkins’ photography at