Horsetail Fall

 
Embers pour over a cliff (left) while a waterfall is illuminated by sunset color (right)
Firefall over Glacier Point (left) and Horsetail Fall illuminated by sunset (right).

Firefall photo (left) courtesy of the Yosemite Archives. Horsetail Fall photo (right) by Christine Fey.

Horsetail Fall flows over the eastern edge of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. This small waterfall usually flows only during winter and is easy to miss. On rare occasions during mid- to late February, it can glow orange when it's backlit by sunset. This unique lighting effect happens only on evenings with a clear sky when the waterfall is flowing. Even some haze or minor cloudiness can greatly diminish or eliminate the effect. Although entirely natural, the phenomenon is reminiscent of the human-caused Firefall that historically occurred from Glacier Point.

Viewing Horsetail Fall in Late February

Due to the popularity of the event, various restrictions are in effect during mid- to late February each year daily. The dates for 2023 are February 10 through 27. In 2023, a reservation will be required to drive into Yosemite 24 hours per day on February 10–12, 17–19, and 24–26. Additionally, parking will be restricted in some areas.

To view Horsetail Fall, park at Yosemite Falls parking (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge) and walk 1.5 miles (each way) to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area. If this parking is full, park at Yosemite Village or Curry Village and use the free shuttle (which stops at both) to get to Yosemite Falls parking/Yosemite Valley Lodge. In addition to the regular shuttle, an express shuttle will be operating between Yosemite Village and the Yosemite Falls parking/Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Vault toilets, along with trash and recycling dumpsters, are available at the El Capitan Picnic Area. Northside Drive will have one lane closed to vehicles so pedestrians can walk on the road between the viewing area and Yosemite Falls parking. Bring warm clothes and a headlamp or flashlight. Parking, stopping, or unloading passengers will be prohibited between Camp 4 and El Capitan Crossover. Vehicles displaying a disability placard will be allowed to drive to El Capitan Picnic Area and park in turnouts on the north side of Northside Drive. On busy weekends, Northside Drive may close completely for about a half hour immediately after sunset.

Southside Drive will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited between El Capitan Crossover to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Pedestrians will also be prohibited from traveling on or adjacent to the road in this area. From Cathedral Beach Picnic Area to Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, the area between the road and the Merced River (including the river) will also be closed to all entry.

El Capitan Crossover (the road connecting Northside and Southside Drives near El Capitan) will be open to vehicles, but parking, stopping, and unloading passengers will be prohibited.

Protect Yourself

  • Bring warm clothes and a headlamp or flashlight for each person.
  • Expect snowy and icy conditions. Wear warm footwear and bring traction devices for your boots.
  • Expect to park far from your viewing area: prepare to walk to and from the viewing area (it will be cold and dark when you’re walking back to your car).
  • Stay out of burned areas and watch for burned snags and branches, which may fall unexpectedly.

Protect the Park

  • Stay out of meadows. Meadows support a majority of plant and animal species in the park yet are fragile and easily disturbed.
  • Stay on trails. When necessary to go off trail (e.g., at a viewing area), areas under forest that have little ground vegetation are the best places to gather.
  • Limit your impacts by staying in disturbed areas. Compacted soils prevent plant root growth, inhibiting revegetation in barren areas.
  • Do not cross into fenced areas. Fenced areas contain sensitive native ecosystems.
  • Use the vault toilets at El Capitan picnic area.
  • Use the trash and recycling dumpsters at El Capitan picnic area or pack out all your trash.
 
Map showing closed area between Southside Drive and Merced River from Cathedral Beach to Sentinel Beach
Park at Yosemite Falls parking, Yosemite Village parking, or Curry Village parking. Free shuttle service is available at all three, with extra service between Yosemite Village and Yosemite Falls parking. Yosemite Falls parking and shuttle stop are the closest to Horsetail Fall.

Why are these restrictions in effect?

Historically, the sunset backlight on Horsetail Fall was little known. However, in recent years, visitation around this event has increased dramatically. For example, on February 19, 2022, 2,433 visitors viewing Horsetail Fall gathered in areas mostly lacking adequate parking and other facilities. In prior years, visitors have spilled onto riverbanks, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation. As riverbanks filled, visitors moved into the Merced River, trampling sensitive vegetation and exposing themselves to unsafe conditions. Some undeveloped areas became littered with trash, and the lack of restrooms resulted in unsanitary conditions.

 
Photo on left shows people with tripods standing in river; photo on right shows a riverbank detaching and beginning to fall into the river
Left: Overcrowded riverbanks create a safety hazard and damage sensitive riverbank vegetation, allowing further erosion during the rest of the year. Right: A section of riverbank collapsed under stress from spectators during February 2017.
 

Videos

The Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau has produced a video about Horsetail Fall and how to see it.

Yosemite Nature Notes

 

Last updated: December 29, 2022

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