Mark your calendars—one of Yosemite National Park’s most popular natural events begins soon. Each year in February’s final two weeks, Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall puts on a phantasmagoric light-and-water show. When conditions are just right, the setting sun illuminates the cataract’s 1,570-foot-long plume as it leaps off El Capitan’s eastern face. Horsetail’s misty ribbon of water appears to be lit on fire, glowing a brilliant molten-lava orange for about 10 minutes. Nicknamed “the Firefall,” this rare natural phenomenon was made famous by Galen Rowell’s 1973 photo “Last Light on Horsetail Fall.” This year's event will last through approximately Sunday, Feb. 24.
For the magic to happen, capricious factors must converge: First, the afternoon temperature needs to be warm enough to melt high-country snow, which opens the spigot on Horsetail Fall. Second, the setting sun must hit the granite cliff at just the right angle so its reflection backlights the waterfall’s spray. And third, the western sky must be clear—no clouds or haze.
Hundreds of photographers gather in Yosemite Valley every February to capture Horsetail Fall’s fiery glow. In recent years, the event’s popularity has led to traffic and overcrowding, so in 2018, the National Park Service instituted a parking permit system for the meadow-lined area from Yosemite Valley Lodge to El Capitan Crossover—prime territory for viewing Horsetail Fall’s fiery cascade. This year, there will not be the same permitting system, but traffic will be re-routed. Check the Yosemite National Park website for last-minute updates to driving and parking regulations. For information about roads within Yosemite Naitonal Park, call 209/372-0200 (then 1, 1).
The best strategy for seeing the falls is to make your way to the viewing area on foot. Ride the free Valley shuttle bus to the Yosemite Falls parking lot, then follow the Valley Loop Trail to El Capitan Picnic Area. Be sure to wear gloves, a hat, a warm jacket, and sturdy walking shoes for the 1.7-mile trek, and carry a flashlight or headlamp for your return. For the best photos, pack along a sturdy tripod and telephoto lens (100 to 200 mm). You’ll want to shoot the waterfall at an angle, not head-on, so plan to arrive by mid-afternoon to scope out the best spot.