Waterfalls at Gunlock State Park near St. George draw tourists — and accidents

For the third time in the past five years the water from Gunlock Reservoir has cascaded over the dam and spilled onto the cliffside rocks.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gunlock Falls overflows the boundaries of the Gunlock Reservoir northwest of St. George, Monday, March 20, 2023.

St. George • Fed by a record snowpack in the surrounding mountains, the waterfalls at Gunlock State Park about 15 miles northwest of St. George is flowing again and unleashing a torrent of water and visitors.

It’s the third time in the past five years the water from Gunlock Reservoir has cascaded over the dam and spilled onto the cliffside rocks, creating the rare waterfalls that lure visitors from all over Utah and southern Nevada.

When the falls flow, cars overflow the parking lot and line both sides of Gunlock Road leading to the site for a quarter-mile or more. On a weekend in mid-March, hordes of people — some in shorts and T-shirts and sporting flip-flops despite the mud and cold — could be seen scrambling up the slick rocks for a better look at the falls.

Nearby, a woman and a boy leapt over a smaller waterfall, where a single misstep could have sent them tumbling over the cliff and onto the boulders below. Up the trail, a man perched precariously on a rock outcropping over the roaring falls.

Orem couple Jordan and Mandy Yates, who were at the falls with their two children, were dumbfounded by the cavalier behavior demonstrated by some of the hikers.

“Most people are behaving, but it looks like we have a few Darwin Award candidates,” Jordan Yates said. “Some of these people must be in a hurry to meet their maker.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors traverse around Gunlock Falls northwest of St. George, Monday, March 20, 2023, after the Gunlock Reservoir overflowed.

Jon Allred, who manages the state park, can’t escape the memory of the one person who died and the scores of others who were injured during 2019 and 2020, the two previous years the water cascaded over the dam and onto the rocks, rushing headlong down the Santa Clara River.

Neither can Sgt. Darrell Cashin, liaison with Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, who has responded to numerous emergencies at the state park. In late May 2019, his search and rescue team rushed to the site when a 36-year-old Logan man fell into a big pool of water while jumping one of the falls, got trapped by a boulder and drowned.

“We tried but couldn’t get to him that day,” Cashin recalled. “The next morning we brought out some inmates and sandbagged off the main flow [of the water] so we could get divers in there to recover his body.”

The following May, search and rescue members came to the aid of a 37-year-old Las Vegas woman who jumped into a pool created by the falls, struck a boulder and was severely injured. Unfortunately, there were hundreds of people crowding the falls and shooting video with their cameras and smartphones, which delayed rescuers attempting to get to the victim.

“I sent my first team up and they called me back and said, ‘Hey, we can’t get through to her because people won’t get out of the way,’ " Cashin said. “So I sent some park rangers up there to help [clear away the crowd]... I just didn’t have the law enforcement needed to take care of that. Fortunately, she survived but she was in bad shape.”

With the record snowpack in Utah’s mountains, the flows at the falls this spring could become much stronger and the risks to visitors much worse. As of Wednesday, southwestern Utah’s snowpack was 302% of normal, according to Utah Snow Survey data.

The Snow Survey is part of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey, said the current flows racing into the Gunlock Reservoir and creating the waterfall are largely coming from snow in lower and mid-elevation areas. With the exception of Little Grassy near Enterprise, he added, none of the SNOTEL snow-measuring sites in southwest Utah’s higher-elevation areas is losing much of its snowpack.

Still, Clayton said the historic snowpack does not necessarily portend major flooding.

“There’s certainly going to be some flood risk,” Clayton said. “But if the snow doesn’t melt and come down all at once, hopefully it can be managed with minimal flooding… If it gets really hot or you get a warm rain all of a sudden, then that could lead to a problem. But it’s all going to depend on what the weather does.

Whatever the weather brings, Allred and state park rangers at the falls are reminding people to exercise caution, wear appropriate clothing and footwear, and bring water to stay hydrated, especially when it warms up.

“We invited visitors to enjoy this wonderful experience but want to remind them to be vigilant and exercise caution to stay safe,” he said. “The majority of the crowds are here to enjoy the falls, but there are a few who are taking risks that are unnecessary.”

When the falls are at capacity or too crowded, park rangers try to steer visitors away and encourage them to visit other attractions in the St. George area. Would-be visitors are advised to check the status of the park on the park’s website and Facebook page before traveling to the falls.

For his part, Cashin is steeled for the worst as the temperatures rise and upper-elevation snow begins to melt. When he took over Washington County Search and Rescue a decade ago, there were 58 rescues for the year. He said that total increased to 173 in 2020 and the number this year is on pace to top 150 or more.

“I have a feeling that as it warms up, our rescues will go way up,” he said.