This year, I opted to visit Yosemite National Park during “Firefall Season” over Presidents’ Day Weekend. In this post, I’ll share my Horsetail Falls photos, plus commentary and tips for those planning on shooting the Firefall this year or in the future. Note that while this offers advice, it’s not comprehensive. For that, refer to our updated Firefall at Yosemite National Park Viewing & Photography Guide.
To start, “opted” is a strong word choice for my decision to photograph the Firefall Presidents’ Day Weekend. I didn’t really have much choice, and if I did, I definitely wouldn’t have picked this weekend as it’s consistently the most crowded weekend. Free National Park entrance is absolutely not worth the hassle of crowds—if you have the money to travel to Yosemite National Park, you have the money to pay admission, and will have an infinitely better experience if you do.
Presidents’ Day aside, Yosemite National Park was still more crowded than I’ve ever seen it for Firefall. I’ve done Firefall several different years now, and it has gotten progressively busier. There are a couple of explanations for this.
First, is the most obvious—news coverage and social media prominence (infamy?). What used to draw photographers from around Northern California now is a ‘destination’ event that packs in exponentially more people.
Second, weather. Yosemite National Park has had a drought the last couple of years leading to subpar water flow and lower “quality” Firefalls. This year, Yosemite has been dumped on in terms of snowfall, and there’s the expectation that Horsetail Falls will benefit from that.
As an ancillary point to the topic of weather, it’s also worth noting that we visited on the first clear days in about a stretch of a week at Yosemite. This is likely significant to the extent that there was a lot of pent-up demand for the Firefall from photographers shut out for the previous several days.
The flip side to that, however, is that tire chains are still required in Yosemite National Park (for the roads that are open), and the California Highway Patrol has done a reasonably good job of discouraging people from visiting the Sierra Nevada. We expected this to cut down on crowds a bit, and maybe it did, but not to the extent that they were low or even moderate.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that more people are now seeing this stunning natural phenomenon, and I think it’s an incredible experience that actually does live up to the hype (which is why I’ve done it so many times). However, I also feel that it’s gone from a fun communal experience with a palpable, positive energy to one that is overly competitive and testy at times as people jockey for the “best” position and ample shooting space while latecomers attempt to “squeeze in” at the last possible minute.
Over the last several years, the National Park Service has been tweaking the way it approaches crowd management for the Firefall. I don’t purport to be an expert on parking or traffic flow, but the decision to have only a handful of viable parking areas coupled with a walking lane along the road is not ideal–but still better than last year’s permit system.
Simply put, the number of parking spots in a 2-mile vicinity of Horsetail Falls is inadequate for the crowds. Moreover, the NPS isn’t effectively communicating that people can park farther away and take a shuttle (really only a viable solution getting to the viewing area).
Over the holiday weekend, this caused many people to park hours in advance of sunset (in many cases, before noon), leaving anyone who arrived 1-2 hours before sunset in a tough spot. The result was many people parking illegally along the side of the road or double-parking other vehicles.
If you’re doing Firefall this year, I cannot stress enough that you need to arrive to the Yosemite Falls Parking Area at least 2 hours in advance. Earlier if it’s a weekend, holiday, or the sky is totally clear. If that’s “too early” for you to camp out for Firefall, go on a short hike or something.
To their credit, the National Park Service contends that the new parking/walking system is the result of record snowfall and inadequate space along the shoulders of the road. This is highly plausible, so it’s not my intent to “critique” the decision too harshly. I’m just saying the approach a few years ago when one lane was essentially devoted to miles of parking and people walked alongside the cars was ideal from my perspective. However, that probably wouldn’t be safe this year due to the snow.
Speaking of the snow…there’s a lot of it, and nothing to suggest that it will all melt between now and the end of Firefall season. As of right now, you need tire chains to enter Yosemite National Park. Whether you’ll be required to put them on your vehicle is a day-to-day type of thing.
We recommend purchasing these Radial Tire Chains by SCC (in the appropriate size) before even leaving for Yosemite National Park. They’re easy to install and inexpensive. Do not wait until you arrive to buy or rent tire chains—physical retail stores from the Bay Area to the gateway cities are pretty much sold out. (Plus, these are cheaper and you can easily return them if they aren’t necessary.)
The upside of all this snow is that Yosemite is looking absolutely gorgeous right now—the prettiest I’ve ever seen it. There’s always the possibility that some of this snow will melt in the next couple of weeks, but with three-plus feet throughout areas of the valley, it’s not going away anytime soon.
Although we had a couple of opportunities to shoot the Firefall, the crowds and camp-out times were such that we elected to put all of our eggs in one basket and only try once.
We were joined for the trip by our friends Mark Willard, plus Jenny and Adam Burke, renowned visionary of BurkeHead Toys. This was the Burkes first time shooting the Firefall, so Jenny and Adam chose the “classic” viewing locations to the east of Horsetail Falls near the El Capitan Picnic Area that are right along the road.
Mark and I have shot this before, and wanted to take a different approach. Part of that was having no desire to be in the already-dense crowds.
For me, the bigger reason for going elsewhere was wanting to capture the resplendent beauty of the winter wonderland that blanketed Yosemite National Park. While most photographers would agree that a “good” shot of the Firefall is with a telephoto to the east of Horsetail Falls, this totally overlooks the scenery that played a pivotal role in our exceptional weekend at Yosemite (plus, I already have versions of the telephoto shot with which I’m satisfied).
As such, we hiked off into the woods across from the El Capitan Picnic Area, basically going as far as we could towards Merced River and then walking forward and west until we could find an unblemished clearing that would allow for a wide angle shot without footprints in the foreground.
Going into it, this felt like a fool’s errand, as we wanted both a clearing and one without footprints in the foreground. To my surprise, it was much easier than expected. Sadly, a lot of trees have died through these woods in the last few years, making clear vantages easier to find.
Although I lost my shoe at one point (presumably to a monster lurking deep benefit the snow) and sank to waist-level several times, it was well worth the effort. If you want to try this approach, I’d strongly recommend snowshoes, or at least gaiters. (My Winter Hiking Packing List covers everything you’ll want and need for Yosemite this time of year.)
Here’s the primary fruit of my efforts:
In the interest of full disclosure, this doesn’t adhere to strict photo journalistic integrity standards (not that any media publications would want it, anyway). I merged two exposures taken over the course of several minutes to achieve both the sunburst and the last light on Horsetail Falls.
One of the things I loved about this spot was that it was one of the last few slivers of sunlight in the valley as the actual sunset time approached, but even it disappeared before the light peaked on Horsetail Falls. In my defense, I think this shot accurately captures the ‘essence of the experience’ (and also, I’m not a photo journalist, so I’m not bound by those rules).
Leading up until the last light, it was a roller coaster of an experience. Cloud cover was pretty thick, to the point we had almost zero expectations for the Firefall. To our surprise, things were looking really good once the sun dipped towards the horizon…until a rogue cloud totally blocked out the sun about 20 minutes before peak light.
To the elation of everyone, the sunlight returned in full force…only to disappear again…only to reappear again. It made for a riveting experience, and in the end, we had a few minutes of peak light. Although I should’ve captured the scene before making the trek into the woods, the photo below shows the crowd that was still packing up after I hiked back to the main Firefall spots.
Ultimately, I was really pleased with this ‘wander the woods’ approach and would recommend it to others. It was less stressful than being in the herd, more serene, and provided a different perspective. I do wish I had a pair of tripods and cameras, but I ended up having plenty of time to switch lenses, so not a huge deal.
It’s worth noting that this vantage was specifically chosen for its quality as a wide angle location. I would not recommend this far to the west to anyone shooting with only a telephoto lens. From my perspective, the sun lighting up the mist on Horsetail Falls is a big part of the appeal of the Firefall, and you don’t get that with a dead-on view.
In my opinion, this is a mistake some people make when congregating in a herd to see/photograph Firefall. If you’ve never shot Horsetail Falls before, you might think head-on offers the best angle. This is especially the case once you see tons of other photographers vying for this perspective. The arguably superior spot for tight compositions is more to the east, as the side view amplifies the appearance of mist coming off the water as it picks up the light.
After concluding our sunset shooting of Horsetail Falls, we walked the mile-plus back to the Yosemite Falls Parking Area. Rather than jumping into the car and dealing with dense traffic, we opted to wander over to the Swinging Bridge Trail, walking along the Merced River, returning to a photo spot we scouted earlier for the Super Moon rising over Half Dome.
That’s obviously beyond the scope of this post, but doing some moonscape photography and waiting out the traffic worked well for us. If there’s any interest, I can continue this as a ‘Winter in Yosemite’ trip report with some photos and commentary from our snowy visit to the park. I’m guessing most of you are here for the Firefall info, so no offense if you don’t care about the other stuff we did.
To those heading to Yosemite National Park for the Firefall this year, arrive early, pack your patience, and—from a practical perspective—a comfortable chair and tire chains. Despite some of the negatives noted in this post, Firefall is still an incredible experience, and it’s absolutely worth the hassle.
If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re looking for more Yosemite photo spots, check out my Yosemite National Park Photo Spots & Tips post. Also, another great resource is Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park.
Have you made it out to Yosemite National Park for the Firefall? How was your experience, both in terms of crowds and photography? If you’ve seen the Firefall (this year or previously), what did you think of it? Is watching and/or photographing the last light on Horsetail Falls during February on your bucket list? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!