Rain Events in Death Valley National Park

by Birgitta Jansen

On Thursday, August 4, Law Enforcement Ranger April Stiltz looked up at the sky and noticed “a high, light grey cloud ceiling; the light was soft and diffuse. There was a slight drizzle but that just made for a pleasant day in the desert. Nothing looked ominous.”

In the early hours of Friday August 5, darkness almost imperceptibly receded giving way to the gentle light of dawn. Not even a hint of the brash summer sun colored the sky. Instead the low hanging cloud cover was dense and grey. The temperature was in the low 90s and rain was light.

Five members of the Death Valley Run Club met shortly before 6 a. m. at their usual spot by the Oasis at the Death Valley Ranch golf course. Among them were Superintendent Mike Reynolds and Interpretation Park Ranger Elyscia Letterman. The rain didn’t bother the runners. It all felt very pleasant and they looked forward to an energizing start of their day. As they ran, however, they noticed that the rain was gradually increasing, but still, nothing alarmed them.

At around 6:30 a. m., Elyscia finished her run, retrieved her car from the parking lot, and left to return to Cow Creek. She did not expect what came next: “Water was running across the road. I was able to safely make it through several areas until I came to a section which looked deeper. Then I stopped. After watching a maintenance truck drive through with water up to its running boards, I realized I could not go on." Because conditions were changing so rapidly the situation was becoming even more dangerous and unpredictable. Elyscia explained, “I was able to quickly back up a little to reach a section of the road that was higher. The water was now carrying grapefruit size rocks and rising in front of me as well as behind me. This meant I couldn’t turn around and go back either. I was trapped. I waited for about an hour for the water level to drop. Eventually another employee in a truck came by and gave me a ride. The water was still flowing across the road. ”

Meanwhile it had not escaped the remaining runners’ attention that it was raining harder and that it was time to leave. However, Mike Reynolds couldn’t believe his eyes when the little group reached the parking lot, “There were rivers of running water! It was exciting to watch. The whole parking lot was a lake!” We took a few photos to capture the crazy moment – little did we know how much more we’d see in just a few minutes.”

They rushed to their vehicles and managed to drive out to the highway, but once there they struggled to go even a short distance. The water was flooding the road and had already deposited so much debris that they could not take their cars through. The amount of water was increasing. Four foot wide waterfalls started to pour over normally dry desert hillsides.

They had to abandon their vehicles by the roadside and wait for an employee with a truck to pick them up and take them to Cow Creek. What they encountered there was, as Mike described it, “beyond insane. ” There was so much water, more than knee deep. Mike continued, ”It was one of the most amazing sights to see the desert transformed in minutes to a raging river! I felt honored to get to experience it. ”

Meanwhile April had started her shift at the Stovepipe Ranger Station when she received a text from her supervisor asking her to go and check out North Highway and a few other places. There were reports coming in of vehicles stuck in various areas, so the roads in the central and northern parts of the park needed to be checked out. Once she had done that she was to make her way to the office at Cow Creek.

April started her truck and drove east on CA Highway 190. The first four miles were uneventful. The rain was light. April felt it was, “a nice, peaceful, somewhat gloomy desert day.” She checked out the parking lot at Mesquite Flat Dunes, and all looked well. She proceeded to North Highway, and that is when the situation changed dramatically. With emotion now audible in her voice, she continued, “There was so much water and debris flowing over the road. It was intimidating to drive through because it was hard to see the road or how deep the water was.” April knew how dangerous this could be.

Slowly she made her way north and turned into Mud Canyon. Water was now flowing on both sides of the road. She proceeded with extreme caution. Then she started seeing chunks of pavement. “Oh boy, this doesn’t look good,” she thought.

Chunks of road along Mud Canyon location after the storm

Photo: Abby Wines, NPS

c. Pic 1 - Mud Cayon location where video was taken_ NPS Abby Wines

April, a 15 year veteran of the National Park Service, with previous service in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP and Yosemite NP, explained, “In Yosemite we had rain, avalanches, rockslides, and high river floods, but nothing like constant water and debris flows covering the roads everywhere. ”

Meanwhile she had also heard that other staff members, including the Law Enforcement’s Deputy Chief who was now Incident Commander, were unable to reach the office or venture out on the road due to high flood waters at Cow Creek. This meant that she was one of the only Law Enforcement (LE) officers out on the road. That is when she understood, “There would be no one to come and help if I needed it.” April also realized that the situation was becoming serious when she heard over the park radio that all the main roads in the park were closing due to flooding.

When she started seeing bigger pieces of pavement, she knew that the water had surged and jeopardized the integrity of the road. The hope had been that the road to Daylight Pass was still open and could be a way for people to go in and out of the park. But things were not looking good.

As she came around the first bend in the road, she saw that the road was no longer there. Instead she found herself on a narrow peninsula of pavement surrounded by massive amounts of dun colored water forcefully streaming on both sides. She felt frightened but also in awe of these sudden and powerful rivers. She took a few seconds to video what she saw and then “I got out of there as quickly as I could. ”

c. Pic 4 - IMG_5471

Mud Canyon; the little peninsula of pavement, after the flood

Photo: April Stiltz, NPS

Part of her assignment was to check out Salt Creek. She turned her vehicle south as she drove through water that was now even deeper than before. She made it to the Beatty Cut-Off, but somewhere between there and Salt Creek, the water was up to the bottom of the truck door. This meant it was two feet deep. A sedan could be set afloat in less water than that. She continued on, knowing that there might be people stranded and frightened ahead. April commented, “I had never been this scared heading into unfamiliar and unknown conditions. I am trained on swift water rescues. But this is different. The forces at work here are different. I couldn’t really tell where the road was or if the road was even still there. It wasn’t safe to stop or turn around. I had to keep going. At some point my engine flooded and caused my alternator to fail. Fortunately, I found a maintenance employee near Beatty Cut-Off who helped me jump start. He had to do this four times as I limped down to Cow Creek. ”

The entrance to Salt Creek on the morning of August 5, 2022

Photo: April Stiltz, NPS

c. Pic 6 - IMG_6928

Meanwhile, Mike Reynolds made it through the flood debris to his office at Furnace Creek, and with the Chief Ranger they started gathering as much information as they could to determine how to deal with the situation. However, one thing was clear: their first priority was the safety of visitors and staff. Helicopters from both the California Highway Patrol and China Lake were requested to check for stranded visitors in the backcountry and engage in rescues if needed.

Beyond that, as Mike explained, “In the midst of a rain event such as this, there is usually much confusion and a distinct lack of clarity. It’s unavoidable. Staff can only know what they can see, and we have to rely on many reports that come in from different locations before we can determine what we’re dealing with. ” The park radio was monitored constantly. They may not have had many of the details yet, but they already understood that this was a major incident.

All park roads were closed. Nearly 1000 visitors and staff couldn’t leave the park. Most were in the Furnace Creek area, and a few were at the small community of Stovepipe Wells, which was also completely isolated. At the Oasis at Death Valley, approximately 60 vehicles in the parking lot had been partly buried in debris and shoved into each other by dumpsters and debris. Fifty hotel rooms at the Ranch at Death Valley had flooded. The Cow Creek water system was destroyed.

Part of the problem was that the park had already experienced two significant rain events. The first rain storm on July 29 was followed by a more serious one on July 31. A visitor’s car had been swept off Highway 190 just east of Towne Pass, and the highway was closed for a day and a half for clean-up. There had also been pavement damage on North Highway, and Cow Creek’s water system sustained serious damage. Because the August 5 rain event was the third in a relatively short period of time, the ground was already saturated, and this contributed to the large amounts of water coursing over the surface.

But that was not the end of it. Three more storm systems followed on August 16, 18, and 25. The remnants of Hurricane Kay came along on September 10 and 11. Then one more arrived on September 13 bringing the total to nine serious rain events, one after another. That’s a lot of water in one of the driest places on Earth…

Death Valleyites had had enough. April said, “We were all exhausted and tired of the rain. We put the barricades up to close roads that were no longer passable. Then road crew would work hard to clear the roads. When they were done we would open the roads and take all the stuff down, only to do it all over again, and again, and again. There is no doubt we needed rain, but this just didn’t stop. Unfortunately one of the problems we encountered was that a few people drove around the closures and created illegal roads where there had not been any. This resulted in more damage to the landscape.” Elyscia commented on another issue: some people blindly followed navigation devices which directed them onto unsafe dirt roads in an attempt to bypass closed paved roads and enter the park anyway. There were dozens of visitors in rental cars that became stuck in a remote area near Chloride Cliff – with many of them abandoning the vehicles in the desert after getting multiple flat tires.

After all that, rain events weren’t the whole story. Between August 30 and September 7 another record was set. For nine consecutive days, temperatures soared over 120 degrees Fahrenheit setting new records each day and resulting in the hottest September ever. For a few nights the temperature never dropped below 100 degrees. In the recorded history of Death Valley temperatures, the month of September had never seen temperatures like this until 2022.

The humidity was excruciating. At Cow Creek, where the offices and maintenance yard are, there was no running water due to the storm damage to the water system. Water had to be trucked in. Porto-potties were installed, although these were rather challenging to use in temperatures of 120 degrees F. The water system was out of commission for approximately six weeks. Simply put, there was a lot to deal with.

Unlike the disastrous floods of 2015 which completely destroyed Scotty’s Castle infrastructure, this time the park service had an advantage. Five members of its management team had been involved with the 2015 storms occurring over a two week period. Lessons learned then were now effectively put into practice.

When the sequelae of the August 5 event became clearer, the park declared an emergency and was placed under an Incident Command protocol. This meant an “all hands on deck situation,” and regular duties were suspended for many staff members. All-staff meetings were held every morning to exchange information and organize tasks. Assistance was also requested from other parks, and approximately 75 employees came to help.

These rain events were so big and so relentless that the full extent of the damage was unknown for weeks. It took time to compile the information because staff had to access various areas to survey the damage in different places. In many locations that was much easier said than done. “It was interesting,” said Mike. “For instance, we had not known until a week later that the boardwalk at Salt Creek had been completely destroyed. If you were not familiar with the area, you would have never known that there had ever even been a boardwalk.”

c. Pic 7 - Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes parking lot

Clean-up Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes parking lot

Photo: Abby Wines, NPS

These events were unusual even for Death Valley National Park, but they are also part of climatic conditions that are in the process of changing. There is now a significant body of research to understand and track these changes and the increasing volatility of our weather systems. It is impossible to know what other events will occur in the future, but it is essential to acknowledge their reality. Wisdom suggests that we need to take steps to deal with the causes of climate change and to prepare for extreme events, such as the ones described here, that will become unavoidable.

Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.