Flash floods are a desert tradition. Here are 5 ways to avoid them.

Capitol Reef reopens access to Cassidy Arch after workers removed cars and debris and repaired trails

(Wayne County Sheriff's Office) Flash flooding at Capitol Reef National Park stranded tourists and damaged or destroyed several vehicles on June 23, 2022.

Mike McPharlin saw the clouds building into dark columns over the Capitol Gorge picnic area in Capitol Reef National Park and told his wife, Carolyn, they needed to leave. About 20 minutes later, with little warning, the skies opened up and fat bulbs of water began falling on their car.

That June 23 shower was steady but brief, recalled McPharlin, a 73-year-old retiree from Millcreek. Its cumulative impact was powerful and punishing, as McPharlin captured in a video of a rogue waterfall pouring over a cliff.

As many as eight vehicles were damaged or destroyed by flash floods that crashed over cliffs and swept through the area. No one died, but 60 park visitors had to be rescued, including several by helicopter.

A week later, a few of the park’s most popular trails remained closed as workers cleared out bumpers, doors and other remnants from cars and trucks. They also repaired paths and roads that were washed out when they became the bed for an impromptu river that, at its height, swelled to a depth of seven feet.

Cassidy Arch — one of the park’s most photographed formations — was not accessible until Saturday. The park had closed the trail and barred access Grand Wash Road, which leads to the trailhead, to cars, bikes and pedestrians. The Grand Wash Trail and the Frying Pan Trail, both of which originate along State Route 24 and intersect with the Cassidy Arch Trail, also were closed but have reopened.

Shauna Cotrell, the chief of interpretation at Capitol Reef, said Thursday that the goal was to have those trails and scenic drives restored at some point during the July Fourth holiday. However, she warned at the time, the threat of more flash floods had the potential to delay progress.

“The crews need to be safe, too,” she said Thursday. “So [they’re] trying to work around forecasted rains and potential floods. Hopefully with it supposed to be drying out this weekend, we’re going to have it open very soon. A lot of the large debris has been removed. So now it’s just a lot of road repair and trail repair.”

NPS / Jennifer Anderson A monsoon moves into the area at Candlestick Tower Overlook in Canyonlands National Park on Aug. 19, 2021. Monsoon season is July through September and even small amounts of rain from the storms often causes flash floods.

Flash floods in Capitol Reef, as well as the other Mighty Five national parks — Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion — are an integral part of life in the desert — and elsewhere, such as the recent one in Yellowstone. Most common during the monsoon season, which generally runs from July to September, they have been carving the landscape since long before President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Capitol Reef a national monument on Aug. 2, 1937.

“Floods are erosion in action, subtly changing the landscape every time one occurs,” Cotrell said. “This landscape has been sculpted by floods and the ecosystem is adapted to these types of disturbances.”

Some creatures within the park live their entire life cycles between the time a flash flood occurs and the residual water dries up. The fairy shrimp, for example, are born, mate and lay eggs in the pools created during a flash flood. Their hard eggs then sit in the soil until the next flash flood, when a new generation is born.

“Rain is very important to the park. It receives on average eight inches of precipitation a year,” Cotrell said. “And every little bit is valuable for the plants and animals that live here.”

While those creatures may be accustomed to the violent floods that can follow even the most modest rain, visitors often are not. And Utah’s national parks are seeing more visitors than ever these days. Last year’s 1.4 million visitors to Capitol Reef set a record.

Cotrell advises anyone visiting the area to check the weather forecast for rain as well as the probability of a flash flood. Both can be found on the Capitol Reef website or at the visitor’s center, where hikers can also get trail recommendations appropriate for the conditions. Cotrell recommends people visit the park early in the morning since monsoons typically occur in the afternoon.

But also know that Mother Nature is unpredictable. The June 23 flood, for example, happened late in the morning, Cotrell said, which is likely why so many people were caught in it. Even the McPharlins, who are regular visitors to Capitol Reef and know flash floods can strike quickly, were nearly stranded while taking a detour on SR-24.

Mike McPharlin said in an email that water washed over the road in numerous places.

“The drive back to Fruita took us through water that was close to dangerous,” he wrote. “Another inch or so of depth and I would have insisted we wait it out on high ground.”

When they stopped in a safe location to take a photo of one of the pop-up waterfalls caused by the flood, McPherin said a man told him the water swept a car off the road in the vicinity of the area from which they had just come.

“We never felt we were in danger,” McPharlin wrote, “just at the edge of it.”

5 Flash Flood Safety Tips

1. Check the weather: Start all your activity planning by checking the weather forecast for rain and the probability of flooding. In the case of Capitol Reef, that information can be found on the park website or online. Apps like RainAware can forecast the likelihood and strength of a rainstorm within a three-hour period.

2. Get going early: Storms typically hit in the afternoon, so plan to take hikes or otherwise explore the park early in the day. That is also the way to avoid temperatures that average 80 degrees or warmer during the summer.

3. Watch the water: If you’re hiking near a stream, be on the alert for rising water. Also leave the area if the water becomes muddied.

4. Head to higher ground: If dark clouds start to gather, get to safety right away, especially if you are near a stream, river or wash. At Capitol Reef, Shauna Cotrell, the park’s chief of interpretation, suggests the picnic area near the Gifford House, the visitors center or the campground. Fruita also has many safe areas, she said. That doesn’t mean climb to the top of a bluff, however, as lightning often accompanies the storms.

5. Be patient: If a roadway or trail becomes flooded, wait in a higher area for the water to recede. Do not try to drive or hike through it. A person can be swept off their feet in just six inches of water.

Sources: NPS, Shauna Cotrell