Staying safe in the canyons
“Now come the floods. They charge down atavistic canyons drinking furiously out of thunderstorms, coming one after the next with vomited boulders and trees pounding from one side of a canyon to the other, sometimes no more than hours apart. Sometimes a hundred years apart. Sometimes a thousand. The floods always come.” Craig Childs, ‘The Secret Knowledge of Water’
To hike the southwest is to experience a landscape fashioned by the power of water. Anyone who has spent time in the desert knows floods are just as natural here as drought, as dunes of blowing sand or canyons of fragrant sagebrush. They are both expected and nearly instantaneous. Experienced canyoneers and seasoned guides have been caught off guard. Too much water all at once feels ironic in a parched landscape. Do more people die here of thirst or of drowning? It’s hard to say. But understanding topography and exercising good judgment can greatly reduce your chance of losing your life in a flood.
Know the lay of the land
The concept is simple: Water flows downhill. When rain hits too fast to soak into the soil, it flows across the landscape and into cracks, which become small washes that converge into bigger ones. A trickle of rain on rock or clay at the top of a drainage can become a raging torrent of water downstream with mud, trees and boulders tearing through a dry wash in minutes. Some slot canyons are safer than others because of their position in the landscape. Peekaboo Slot Canyon is near the top of the Grand Canyon watershed. Rain that falls just eight miles further north is headed to the East Fork of the Virgin River instead. Peekaboo does flash on average of once every couple of years, but the rain comes from closeby, so at least hikers have clues to stay out of the canyon. Buckskin Gulch, on the other hand, is downstream from hundreds of square miles of landscape. Rain 30 miles to the north from Bryce Canyon National Park, a large swath of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and the slopes of Buckskin Mountain in the Kaibab National Forest drain into Buckskin Gulch. Floods can be frequent and horrific, earning this canyon a place on Backpacker.com’s list of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in America. We don’t know of anyone who has died in Buckskin yet, but there have been some very close calls. Remember that water takes time to travel. By the time you check radar, last night’s storm over the Paunsaugunt is no longer evident, but that water is likely headed your way. When I guide trips into Buckskin and rain is at all possible, I get up at 3 a.m. to check the radar to be sure it’s not raining anywhere in the drainage, because most radar websites only display the past couple of hours and to predict floods over a large drainage you need a longer history
Keep a close eye on forecasts and radar
Never enter a slot canyon without consulting a weather forecast for the entire drainage in which you will be hiking. Be flexible. If there is a chance of rain, do something else. It’s also helpful to keep an eye on radar until you drive out of phone range. Radar shows recent and current precipitation and can be viewed on a smartphone, but you need an internet connection, which is rare in remote places and non-existent in slot canyons.
It doesn’t take as much rain as you think. A half-inch of rain can be enough to cause a deadly, overhead flood in a slot.
When hiking or driving, pay attention to the landscape and learn to recognize washes. A bald, sandy swath across the desert may indicate the path water has flowed and removed all of the plants. Many washes have steep sides, logs deposited by flowing water, boulders or piles of organic debris indicating a recent high water mark. A slot canyon is simply a river bed whether it’s wet or dry. It’s a low point in the landscape where previous floods have carved a route through hard rock. These can be the most dangerous washes to spend time in because they offer less chance for escape and they are narrow, so even a small amount of water can form a deep flood. Parking your car in a wash is ill advised, even if rain is not expected. And if you hike in any type of wash keep an eye out for places you could escape if a flood hits.
Extra caution is advised during monsoon season
A flash flood can occur any time of day or year, but most happen in the afternoon during monsoon season which is typically July, August and September. When the desert heats up, storm clouds tend to develop and deliver a sudden afternoon outburst. A forecast predicting a 20% chance of rain sounds tame enough, but this just means there is a small chance you will be in the spot where the rain hits. Some corner of the desert is probably about to get nailed, and that location is impossible to prognosticate. One canyon is torn to shreds while the next one over never feels the shadow of a cloud.
But not all floods follow expected patterns. They can hit any time of year, any time of day. Last October brought several floods to the region. Peekaboo Canyon flowed overnight while Kanab resident slept. The next morning, unexpecting guides were greeted by rearranged boulders, mud and water pools in the canyon. The most notorious rapid in the Grand Canyon, Crystal, was created instantly in December of 1966 when a 40-foot wall of water and boulders burst down Crystal Creek and piled into the Colorado.
It’s even possible for an ice dam to break upstream in winter, causing a cold rush of water in a frozen or dry drainage.
Signs and Symptoms
A rush of wind heading downstream of a canyon may precede a flood. Others have described a roar like a freight train. The front of the flood will be filled with mud and debris: Sticks and logs. It glides along the canyon floor like a dirty swamp monster and doesn’t even resemble water. As you walk, keep an eye out for ways to climb out of the canyon or at least to climb high in case a flood comes. The closest exit may be behind you.
You’re responsible for your own safety
Seven canyoneers who were issued permits to traverse Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park in September of 2015 died in a flood later that day. They were warned about the potential for flash floods when the permits were issued and allowed to proceed. Your safety is not guaranteed just because you’ve been given a permit or you’re in a park. In most cases, there is no ranger standing by. There’s no gate that closes the canyon ahead of the flood. No flashing lights or alarm bells. The decision to enter is yours.
Many flash flood deaths occur in cars
A vehicle carrying three women and 13 children was swept through Hildale, Utah in 2015. Ten perished.
Don’t underestimate the power of flowing water. Water moving at 10 miles an hour can exert the same pressures as wind gusts of 270 mph,, according to a 2005 article in USA Today. It’s not a matter of having a big car, or being a strong swimmer. Even monster trucks float. In almost all circumstances, it’s best to avoid driving through a flood. One of our guides encountered a flood flowing across House Rock Valley Road in October of 2021 when 2.7 inches of rain fell in a short time. She parked in the road and waited for the water to subside, but a minivan came up behind her and plunged right into the flow where it was swiftly swept downstream. Thankfully, the occupants were unharmed. Be flexible. Choose another route or wait. Being late is better than the alternative.
Again, try not to park in washes. When a wash does flow, keep your distance. Floods can swell to several times their size rapidly. River banks frequently collapse. Stay away from the edges, keep your car away from the edges of anywhere water could potentially flow.
In August of 1882, not long after Kanab was founded, a flood ripped through Kanab Creek, destroying the settler’s crops and killing livestock. In a matter of hours, water tore through the landscape, widening the creek by a couple hundred feet and lowering the creekbed by 50 feet, making it hard to irrigate next year’s crops. Floods in the 1880s also destroyed fields and buildings at a settlement along the Paria River and led to the settlers’ decision to abandon their town.
You don’t have to rewind the clock very far to see other flood evidence. Floods in 2021 several times tore away a ladder used to descend a boulder jam in Wire Pass. After one flood, the ladder was found about a mile downstream where it was wedged into Buckskin Gulch several stories overhead. During that flood, a gigantic juniper tree became jammed into Wire Pass. No one even knows where it came from. It will likely be there for a lifetime. We also saw a seep run dry, one we would draw water from on our Buckskin backpacks. Somehow, a flood rearranged the earth’s plumbing and also closed the “Rabbit Hole” hikers would use to navigate through the famed boulder jam in Buckskin. It may never reopen. Now scrambling down Moqui steps is required.
Not sure about local topography? Call us
Do you need local knowledge while planning a hike? Call us. We’ll give our best advice, even if you don’t plan to hire us as your guide. Or we’ll tell you about our various slot canyon tours, including the Slot Canyon Bonanza. It’s awesome. Above all, we want you to stay safe, we want you to enjoy the desert. (435) 644-5506.