Central California’s Yosemite Valley is filled with countless waterfalls, but many of them only flow for part of the year. Horsetail Fall is one of those seasonal waterfalls, flowing over the eastern edge of El Capitan in the winter and early spring. 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 the mountain.
As beautiful as the fall is by itself, for just a few days at the end of February it becomes a dazzling show known as the “firefall.” If the conditions are just right, once the sun dips behind the horizon line everything will begin to go dark and it will seem, for a moment, as if the firefall has failed to ignite. But as the sunlight disappears, the waterfall catches the final rays, which reflect off the falls to create a spectacular, short-lived, effect that looks like a beautiful cascade of liquid fire.
Even if you’re standing at the right spot at the right time of year, you may not witness a firefall. The phenomenon occurs when the sky is free of clouds or haze and there is sufficient snowmelt to feed the waterfall.
Bizarrely, Yosemite Park used to actually create “firefalls” by pushing huge piles of coals off the edge of a cliff. These were a popular tourist sight from the 1880s until the 1960s, when the park realized this was a fire hazard and stopped. Luckily, this natural phenomenon was able to pick up where the park rangers left off after famed climber and photographer Galen Rowell noticed it and took a picture of the firefall effect on Horsetail Falls in 1973.
Even when it isn’t catching the late February sun, Horsetail Fall is impressive. It is the second highest free-falling waterfall in Yosemite Valley. The highest is Ribbon Falls, located on the other side of El Capitan and is also seasonal. It doesn’t stand out from the flat wall where it free falls down to the valley floor as well as Horsetail Falls, which has an edge allowing visitors to view it from the side.
Know Before You Go
The most convenient, and frequently shot view of Horsetail Fall is at the El Capitan picnic area, approximately 1.7 miles past Yosemite Lodge at the Falls on Northside Drive. In late February, you’ll often see rows of photographers of all levels there catching the last rays of light in the evening.Of course, the most unique images often come from photographers willing to explore for different angles and locations that also capture the light of the Fall.
According to the NPS, the closest parking to view Horsetail Fall is in the Yosemite Falls Parking Area close to the Yosemite Valley Lodge and on Northside Drive beside El Capitan Straight. Vehicles with a disability placard may park at the El Capitan picnic area.