While much of Southern Utah may be a desert, it experiences a season that many visitors never see coming; monsoon season. Starting in late July, sudden storms bring inches of rain to the region. Luckily, these rainstorms tend to pass quickly. They are sporadic enough that you can still plan plenty of hiking and other outdoor activities in between downpours. Unfortunately, this rain falls on the dry, packed ground, which means that rather than soaking in, it runs off cliffs and down slopes. This, in turn, spurs flash floods.
Deadly flash floods have claimed numerous lives throughout the region. They are especially dangerous in national parks, where hikers are often in remote areas when floods begin. Slot canyons, which are found in Zion and other parks in Utah and Arizona, are particularly dangerous, as they leave hikers with few options for escaping the rising waters.
If you’re headed to Capitol Reef, Zion, or any other nearby state or national parks this monsoon season, keep reading to learn what you need to know to avoid getting caught in a flash flood.
Check the Weather Constantly
Checking the weather once or twice in the days leading up to your vacation will help you plan what clothes and gear to pack. Checking the weather once or twice in the days leading up to your vacation will not help you properly prepare for a flash flood threat.
Weather forecasts change frequently. Even checking more than once on the same day may not keep you safe if there’s even a chance of rain in the area. Additionally, flash floods can be caused by storms that are miles and miles away.
If there is any chance of rain in the area on the day you’re visiting, steer clear of slot canyons and low-lying trails. You can always stop by the national park visitor center to talk to park officials about trails that are safe from flooding. You can also find out the flash flood rating for the day. The flash flood potential rating system has four levels, including:
- Expected: The highest level of flood risk. Flooding is highly likely.
- Probable: Weather forecasts indicate that flooding is likely, especially in low-lying areas, slot canyons, and dry creek and river beds.
- Possible: This level of flood risk indicates that flooding is unlikely in much of the park, but still possible in low-lying areas, slot canyons, and small streams.
- Not Expected: This is the lowest level of flood risk. Don’t let that mislead you; because flooding can be caused by storms occurring miles away and storms can pop up unexpectedly, dangerous conditions can still occur when this rating is present.
Park officials may update the flood rating throughout the day as weather patterns and conditions change. It’s a good idea to not only check back in on the flood rating frequently but also continue to monitor the weather on your own while hiking.
Know the Signs
Flash floods occur, by definition, unexpectedly. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any signs of their approach. While these signs might not give you more than a few minutes or even second to seek higher ground, when it comes to a flash flood, every moment counts.
If it is raining where you are and puddles are beginning to for, it’s a sign that the ground is already saturated. The rain may also be falling too fast for it to soak into the ground. Of course, puddles do not always indicate a flash flood. But if you are in a low-lying area, it’s better to play it safe.
Streams, creaks, and rivers offer even more clues of an approaching flash flood. The water may begin flowing muddy where it was previously clear. You might also notice an increase in debris drifting downstream.
The last sign of an approaching flash flood you’ll notice before the water is upon you is the sound of rushing water. If you ever hear this sound, you need to find higher ground as fast as you can.
What You Should Do if a Flash Flood Occurs
If you do find yourself caught in the path of a flash flood, seeking higher ground is the only thing you need to do. Never try to outrun a flash flood; you simply won’t make it. Leave all gear behind and climb upwards as fast as you can.
Never, ever try to swim through floodwaters. While the water is dangerous, what’s even worse is the debris that it is carrying. Floodwaters are capable of carrying downed trees and even boulders. These will quickly knock you off your feet and injure you, leaving you unable to swim to safety.
Once you’ve reached higher ground, you may find yourself stranded. If so, you’ll need to wait for the floodwaters to recede. Even as they begin to drop, you should not try to cross them.
Staying Safe From Flash Floods
Flash floods usually occur when we least expect them. But checking weather forecasts and flash flood ratings and watching for early signs can help you stay safe. And knowing what to do if you do get caught in one could just save your life.