Horsetail Fall, the seasonal waterfall on east El Capitan, is becoming so famous the National Park Service is taking new steps to control wintertime traffic and parking in Yosemite Valley.
“We're seeing more visitors, the season’s extending beyond Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Ranger Jamie Richards, a public information officer for Yosemite National Park, said Monday in a phone interview. “Now we're seeing more and more people coming to the park in winter months. We have to find new ways to manage the traffic.”
A year ago and two years ago in February, crowds for Horsetail Fall viewing created significant safety issues between pedestrians and motorists, Richards said. Rangers counted more than 1,000 vehicles in traffic jams and parking snarls on ideal sunset evenings. Viewing conditions were ideal in February 2017 and February 2016 because Horsetail Fall had water, ice and snow in it.
No pedestrian-motorist injuries were reported in connection with Horsetail viewing the past two years. but there were several close calls, Richards said.
The new plan this year is to close Northside Drive to private vehicles less than 25 feet long, convert Southside Drive to two-way traffic, and restrict parking in the prime viewing area, Feb. 12 to Feb. 26, to 300 vehicles each day, 250 by reservation and 50 on a first-come, first-served basis.
No restrictions will limit the number of people who can walk to prime viewing locations each day.
Photographers and others who know Yosemite Valley call Horsetail Fall “the natural firefall” because they say it resembles the long-discontinued, manmade firefall spectacle park concessioners used to create by pushing glowing coals and embers off Glacier Point.
From 1872 to 1968, manmade firefalls were staged most summer evenings with burning hot bonfires falling 3,000 vertical feet so that people at Curry Village, the Ahwahnee Hotel and elsewhere in the valley could watch.
Historians say the National Park Service decided to stop the firefall spectacles a half-century ago because they were not natural and because so many visitors came they were trampling meadows ideally situated for viewing.
These days Horsetail Fall draws thousands of spectators for similar reasons: the spectacle can only be seen in Yosemite Valley, it lights up around sunset and it can make for memorable photos.
It takes at least two variables to create the Horsetail Fall spectacle: flowing water, ice and snow in Horsetail Creek where it spills over the east rim of El Capitan, and sunset rays striking the fall at angles that make it light up.
In wet winters like last year’s near-record wet season, Horsetail Fall can light up to a degree not seen in years. In dry winters there can be little or nothing to see.
It’s important to note Horsetail Fall is called “seasonal” and “ephemeral” because it does not flow year-round. It responds to runoff coming from its watershed, so it's especially responsive to recent rainstorms and significant snowmelt.
Right now, of course, the Central Sierra and the rest of the Golden State are in the midst of a February heat wave that could end up lasting two weeks or longer. That means there’s not much to see at Horsetail Fall at the moment.
Richards confirmed Monday there is little flowing in Horsetail Fall right now.
“Please be advised as of today there still is not a lot of water or snow in Horsetail Fall,” Richards said in an email Monday. “This year is not going to look like past years unless we get some rain or the snow melts enough.”
Regardless of current weather conditions and viewing outlooks for Horsetail Fall, park rangers and law enforcement rangers and other park visitors have noticed significant crowd increases for the Horsetail spectacle over the past five years, Richards said. A plan was put together last year and it’s going ahead now regardless of forecasts.
“This is pure coincidence,” Richards said of the current warm, dry spell. “The NPS has been planning to roll this out at the beginning of February for some time now.”
The crowd control plan is a partnership between the National Park Service, the Aramark park concessioner Yosemite Hospitality, the park’s oldest remaining family-owned concessioner, the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village, and the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy.
“This program has been created to improve the overall visitor experience to view the natural Horsetail Fall phenomenon that occurs each year in mid-February when the sun’s light at sunset causes the waterfall on El Capitan to glow like it is on fire,” National Park Service staff said in an announcement last week.
Rangers have determined existing roads can’t accommodate the numbers of visitors seen in February last year and the year before for Horsetail Fall viewing, Richards said. Sometimes people are parking where they’re not supposed to. Sometimes motorists just stop where they are in moving traffic lanes.
“It’s created pedestrian and parking issues,” Richards said. “Pedestrian safety and free-flowing traffic are a challenge. We’ve had close calls. Pedestrians walking in the road when cars are coming. What we’ve said is we don’t want a repeat of the last several years. We need to find a way to make viewing Horsetail Fall more enjoyable for more people.”
The Horsetail Fall plan is also a pilot program, to see how it goes, similar to reserved parking pilot programs tied out last summer and the summer before, Richards said.
Park it and walk
Details of how this pilot program will work are complicated, even for those who visit Yosemite Valley frequently.
Reservations to park in the viewing area will be required, Richards said. Reservations are not required to park outside the viewing area, at the Yosemite Falls day parking area across from Camp 4, for example, and walk to prime viewing locations.
From Feb. 12 to Feb. 26, park staff will create a Horsetail Fall “event zone” from Yosemite Valley Lodge to El Capitan Crossover, where a short bridge crosses over the Merced River within view of The Nose route on El Cap.
On Northside Drive, the left-hand traffic lane in the event zone will remain open as an exit route for YARTS buses, commercial buses, and other vehicles exceeding 25 feet in length.
The right-hand lane of Northside Drive will be converted to parking for 300 vehicles. Free parking permits will be required. Each day there will be 250 free permits available by online reservation, and 50 permits will be issued on a first-come, first-served basis at the Ansel Adams Gallery.
Online reservation holders will need to bring a printed copy of their reservation confirmation in person to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to pick up their vehicle parking permits for the event on the day of the reservation, park staff said.
All permits not picked up by 3 p.m. will be forfeited.
Yosemite Hospitality, the park’s primary concessioner, will be offering naturalist-guided tours to Horsetail Fall viewing areas each day. Lisa Cesaro with Aramark says per person costs are $29 for adults, $28 for seniors and $20 for children. For more information call (888) 304-8993 or visit www.TravelYosemite.com.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.