Yosemite in February 3: Horsetail Falls

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Around the middle of February in a snowy year, thousands of photographers converge on Yosemite on good weather days to see one of Yosemite’s most astonishing spectacles. When the conditions are just right and water is flowing in the seasonal Horsetail Falls, for a few minutes at sunset the light will illuminate the waterfall to make it look like a stream of fire. (Google to see what it looks like.) On February 20, 2016, I arrived in Yosemite Valley hoping to catch a few shots of this wonder.

I knew it would be crowded in the valley, but I had no idea how crowded it would actually turn out to be. Nevertheless, I came very prepared to deal with the eventual hordes of photographers and sight-seers hoping to get a catch of this extraordinary natural miracle. There are two main places from which to see and photograph Horsetail Falls: one along the Merced River not far off Southside Drive. The other, and the one I chose, is at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. I selected a clearing right off the road, hoping it would allow me to make a quick getaway. I arrived there around noon — that is, some five and a half hours before the actual event would take place. In the next five hours, people would slowly find parking places and look for a spot from which to photograph, or at least watch, the natural fire fall. After three o’clock, the pace of people arriving accelerated. The rangers blocked off one lane along Northside Drive for miles to give late comers a chance to park.

When I arrived at noon, there were already people set up ready to get the shot:

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I glanced up to see if I could see the falls:

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At that time of day, it could barely be seen. I wondered if there was enough water to create the famous effect. Luckily, as the afternoon progressed, it seemed like there was more water streaming down the face of the cliff. Perhaps the afternoon heat had melted some of the snow in the high country basin feeding the falls. Note the second even smaller falls to the left:

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Cars were lined up along the road and the hordes converged:

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My clearing soon began to fill:

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We sat and stared at the falls, waiting for the magic moment:

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Finally, around 5:40 PM, it seemed like something was about to happen. The light became warmer against the cliff:

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Then the light turned amber. Expectations rose:

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We waited for the magic. The cliff turned orange, and the shadows around the falls deepened. We expected something to happen at any second:

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A furtive cheer arose. Everyone stared intently at the falls. But nothing happened — nothing, that is, except the light began to grow dimmer.

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People who had been there before and had seen the falls in its full glory suddenly began telling everyone, “It’s not happening tonight. Better luck next time.” The light quickly faded away, until it was almost dark:

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All for nought! Thousands left the valley in the bitterest disappointment!

That’s not at all untypical for the Natural Fire Falls (aka Horsetail Falls). So many factors have to come together for the effect to occur. More often than not something goes wrong and it doesn’t happen at all. However, there’s always next year!

One thing, however, I can’t help reflecting upon. It really was very crowded on that third Saturday in February. Much of Northside Drive (and I suppose Southside Drive as well) was packed with cars. One lane was closed for parking, the other was packed with sight seers hoping to get the faintest of glimpses of the amazing wonder. Just imagine the busiest weekend in summer. Now multiply this by five or six. Yes, it was that crowded — and I might be selling it short: it could’ve been worse! And so it is very possible that that particular Saturday in February was the busiest day ever in the history of Yosemite! In any case, I don’t think it can be completely ruled out. Yosefite Valley was packed to the gills with cars and featherless bipeds equipped with camera and tripods.

I was lucky. I quickly escaped to my car and managed to merge into the traffic. Within ten minutes, I was out of the valley and on my way to Merced. But many others were not so lucky, and were probably stuck in traffic perhaps for hours. Who know? Maybe they’re still stuck in traffic!