Hikers seek refuge in Canyonlands cave as Utah’s monsoon season brings 100-year flood

Flash floods, like tourists, on the rise this year throughout most of southern Utah.

As Darius Nabors began filling his backpack with a sleeping bag, food and other gear he would have to carry on his back for a three-day trip through Canyonlands National Park, his rain jacket didn’t make the cut.

Reflecting on the trip Monday, Nabors, 37, said, “I’m not going to hear the end of that one from my friends.”

On Saturday, two days into the trek, Nabors and four friends came terrifyingly close to being caught up in one of the flash floods that swept through southern Utah and much of the Southwest last weekend. Only by taking refuge in a cave did the group escape the worst of a series of storms that led to the death of a hiker in Zion National Park, caused a 100-year flood in Moab and released a phalanx of 300-foot waterfalls in Canyonlands that would be gone by morning.

From their sandstone box seats, the seasoned backpackers got a spectacular view, and reminder, of how abruptly the desert’s mood can change — especially this year.

“It was very surreal and kind of a privilege just given the unique experience of that kind of 100-year flood force of nature, out where the water from the sky meets the only other spot that’s real water in the desert,” said Matt Castelli, 33, who was also on the trip.

“But that’s only because we were safe.”

The travelers, who all live near Denver, are accustomed to the extremes of the outdoors. Castelli said he had experienced torrential rains in the Everglades and the Arctic Circle. Nabors quit his job in 2015 to spend 59 weeks exploring all then-59 national parks. He estimates he has hiked or paddled through Canyonlands at least 10 times. This trip, in fact, was merely a scouting expedition for a bigger adventure he, Castelli and another friend have planned to spend 10 days “packrafting” — alternating between paddling on small, inflatable rafts and hiking — through the park.

(Darius Nabors) Kayleen and Matt Castelli and Michael and Kathryn Heckendorn prepare dinner and dry out their gear on the contours of a cave in Canyonlands National Park on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

They did their due diligence prior to embarking on their scouting trip Friday, they said, including checking the weather via multiple sites.

The National Weather Service had been advertising on its social media accounts for at least a week that “a significant surge of monsoonal moisture 200% of normal” was expected Friday and Saturday, according to agency meteorologist Matthew Aleksa. But the hikers didn’t see it, and Mother Nature is unpredictable, especially in that part of the country.

So, when dark clouds and thunder began rolling in as they were about 2.5 miles south of the Potato Bottom campground and 10 miles into a 12-mile paddle down the Green River, they took notice. With mostly blue skies still overhead, the paddlers made a group decision to continue toward their planned take-out spot. Not that they could have easily stopped where they were anyway. Miles from civilization, they were hemmed in by thickets of willow and tamarisk along both banks of the river.

Fifteen minutes later, when lightning started to flash above them and a weather report from a GPS device said rain was on its way, the need to find shelter became more urgent. The prospect of clawing through a tangle of willows wasn’t appealing but appeared more likely with every paddle stroke.

“It would have been really uncomfortable,” Castelli said. “As in like, it would have been a really steep mud bank and getting out of the boat would have been gross — like you’d be up to your knees or waist in water — and then climbing up the willows to get somewhere in there past the steepness of the bank and then sitting in there after fighting through the willows, you’re just cramped. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of, like, a dense bamboo jungle, it’s like that.

“So yeah. Was it possible? Yes. Was it the first choice? No.”

When an opening came into view, the party seized upon it. Then they spotted their best chance for shelter about 40 feet above the bank. The deep overhang was the only cavelike formation they had seen for miles, and it was in the perfect spot. Castelli and his wife Kayleen, Kathryn and Michael Heckendorn and Nabors all hustled to deflate their boats and get their gear to safety.

Less than five minutes later, the skies opened up.

The first shower lasted just 15 minutes. Still, it came down so hard that when Castelli tried to play AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” at full blast on his iPhone to try to lighten the mood in the cave, which should have aided the acoustics, he could barely hear it. A pop-up waterfall started spurting out from over the top of the cave. But huddled up with their back against the rock wall, the hikers stayed dry.

During a 30-minute intermission, they emerged from their shelter to see massive waterfalls rolling off mesas similar to the park’s famous Island in the Sky on the other side of the river.

“Every half mile or so from those rims, you could see a 400-foot waterfall that looked like it was out of Yosemite Valley, like Bridalveil,” Castelli said. “And that was just, like, you would never know there was a waterfall there or that it was as striking as Horsetail Falls, and it looks like it. And then there’s just dozens of them.”

The storm ended less than an hour after it had begun. It dropped an inch of rain in less than an hour, according to NWS estimates. As the clouds cleared, a double rainbow glimmered over the red rocks.

They knew they had been fortunate to find the cave. They didn’t know how fortunate until the next day, after they hiked 11 miles along the White Rim trail to Island in the Sky and better cell service. They saw the reports about the flooding in Moab, about the 200 hikers stranded in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and about a Grand Canyon flash that just missed another group of paddlers but is believed to have drowned several cows and horses.

They also saw the report of the hiker who was caught up in a flash flood that ripped through The Narrows at Zion on Friday. The body of Jetal Agnihotri, 29, of Tucson, Ariz., was found six miles downriver Tuesday.

Though flash floods are a common occurrence in southern Utah between July and mid-September, this year has had more than its share, according to Aleksa, whose Grand Junction, Colo., station monitors Moab and Canyonlands.

“This year has been one of the bigger monsoon seasons we’ve had in recent years,” Aleksa said, “just with the amount of moisture and the persistence of that moisture.”

Typically, monsoonal storms move in, throw their tantrum and then dry out and move along. This year, Aleksa said, a high-pressure system is trapping the moisture over the area, making it ripe for rain. And the low pressure system that would usually knock it out is instead veering north.

That pattern indicates the surge in flash floods this year likely has more to do with it being a La Niña year, Aleksa said, than it does with climate change.

Still, with more people enjoying the outdoors and visitation up at most of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks in recent years, it’s a wonder, then, that more people have not gotten caught up in the floods.

Both Nabors and Castelli credited planning, heuristics, teamwork and a deep respect for Mother Nature’s moods for helping keep the group safe. As a group, they made the best decision at that moment and tried to avoid careless mistakes — like leaving a rain jacket at home — that could create bigger problems down the road.

“I was like, ‘We’re going on a one-night overnight. It shouldn’t be a big deal,’” Nabors recalled thinking of the jacket, which, because of the cave discovery and the warm temperatures, he didn’t need.

“But, that little decision: If that cave works out differently, I go from being warm and happy to being cold and maybe needing a rescue.”

(Darius Nabors) A double rainbow appears over Canyonlands National Park and all is still on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, less than an hour after a flash flood ripped through the area.

Sometimes even people well-versed in navigating the outdoors can get caught in the rain.

“We did all of the things that we could do that were in our control,” Nabors said. “And at that point, you know, either you did all the right things and it’s going to be OK or you did the right things and it’s not going to be OK.”

The close call didn’t spook Nabors and Castelli away from taking their longer trek through Canyonlands next month, when the park will still be in the thick of monsoon season. But Castelli said it did inspire at least one modification.

“Darius is going to bring a rain jacket.”

Correction: Aug. 24, 2022, 11:50 a.m. >> Matt Castelli’s name was incorrect in a previous version of this article.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.