Flash floods can be a pleasant surprise
November 1, 2006
I took a sentimental trip to Arches National Park a few weeks ago. I haven’t worked as a ranger at Arches outside Moab, Utah, for 20 years, but I still remember it fondly and sometimes visit my favorite places. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the Delicate Arch road. It was always something of a small miracle to me that the three-mile road was allowed to remain primitive for as long as it did. Until the mid-1990s, this gateway to the most-photographed natural arch in the world could only be accessed by a washboard road that had to be closed every time it rained. I thought it was great.What price was a visitor willing to pay to see Delicate Arch? Was he willing to subject himself and his car to a teeth-rattling road? The answer was usually: Not really. At the turnoff to Delicate Arch, the park had for years maintained a counter near the intersection with the main road. But Jerry Epperson, the chief ranger at the time, suspected the numbers being reported were much too high. So we moved the counter a mile down the road, and suddenly, “visitation” to Delicate Arch dropped by half. What we discovered was that drivers were taking one look at that treacherous washboard and turning around.Yet some of the visitors’ most memorable experiences occurred on that old road. When it rained hard, Salt Valley Wash, between the Delicate Arch trailhead and the main road, would flood, stranding hikers and their cars on the other side.It was my job to warn visitors of the possibility of flash floods when the threat was there, and to assist them when the warning came too late. In the desert, thunderstorms live up to their name. While it’s sunny and calm below, it can be raining torrents upstream. I’d sometimes be able to see the flood building in every rivulet and side drainage, but I’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone at the trailhead that a wall of milk chocolate was on the way. After doing my best to spread the word, I’d drive back across the wash to the safe side and wait.I could usually hear the oncoming flood before I saw it. The head of a flash flood doesn’t roar, it hisses. Before the water comes the foam, a thick brown smoothie that inches down the waterway at a pace that always seems so much slower than the wall of water that’s directly behind it. I’ve walked out into the middle of a dry wash and waited for the foam. And when it arrived, I managed to stay just inches ahead of it while walking at a leisurely pace. It always felt like I was being followed by The Blob.When the nonbelievers finally decided to make their departure and drove 200 yards to the Salt Valley Wash crossing, I always liked to be there waiting for them. I may have had an all-knowing smirk on my face. But while the flood sometimes meant they missed their dinner reservations, or threw them off their itinerary, I never saw anything but smiles and sheer wonder on the faces of the stranded tourists. How many people can say they were stranded on a dirt road in the desert by a flood that arrived while the sun was shining? Some of the best “campfire talks” ever given at Arches were shouted across Salt Valley Wash to an amazed, albeit captive audience.It usually took a couple of hours for the water to subside and another hour for the wash bottom to become firm enough to support the weight of a vehicle. Then, in 1983, the Park Service road crew spent a day doing bulldozer practice in the wash and altered its gradient. When they were done, water had to flow uphill at the wash crossing. When the next flash flood came along, the water pooled, instead of flowing downstream, and the crossing became a frequent quagmire after that. A few years later, the park got the funding to build bridges and pave the road. By 1995, the project was complete.Visitors will never know what they missed. Even so, it’s nice to know that Nature can still have her way once in a while. In early October, unprecedented rains washed out the paved road to Delicate Arch and once again gave visitors something they didn’t expect … the unexpected.Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.