On the night of Sunday, October 18, 2015, park dispatch received word that visitors were stranded by flooding near Ubehebe Crater. Park rangers evacuated Mesquite Springs Campground and sheltered in place with 20 visitors in the northern end of the park. That night a park ranger watched power poles and metal dumpsters float out of Grapevine Canyon—an initial indicator of the flood's impacts.
Series of Record-Breaking October Storms
Over a two-week period in October, a series of unusual storms hit Death Valley National Park in a patchwork of intensities that varied by location.
These storms dropped a total of 1.3 inches of precipitation at Furnace Creek, the headquarters in the center of the park. This set a record for the wettest October ever, in a location that averages about 2 inches of rain annually. Furnace Creek was spared the strongest parts of the storms, which affected the southern and northern parts of the park more severely.
Scotty's Castle area averages 4 inches of rain per year, yet it received over 3 inches of rain and hail in just a five-hour period, after the ground was already saturated from preceding days of rain.
Floods Shape Death Valley
Rainfalls that seem moderate by the standards of less arid regions can have major effects in a desert environment. Partially due to sparse vegetation, desert soils tend to be hard-packed and don't soak up water quickly. Steep slopes in Death Valley also tend to shed rain rather than absorb it. This water ends up channeled in low spots such as canyons and can very suddenly cause flash floods.
Flash floods can cause very expensive damage to roads and infrastructure. They can also be dangerous. Never drive across active flooding and avoid hiking in canyons when there is a risk of rain.
Yet these same flash floods are a major force behind the stark beauty of Death Valley. Flash floods moved debris to create the alluvial fans that spill out of canyon mouths. Flood erosion created the Natural Bridge and carved the graceful curves of Mosaic Canyon.
About 1,000 miles of roads were closed in the park following these floods. Depending on the road segment, roads in the park are maintained by NPS, CalTrans, or local counties. Over the next months, most roads were reopened after flood debris was removed and shoulders were repaired.
The Jubilee Pass section of Badwater Road had extensive sections of pavement and road base washed away. It was repaired by contractors funded by Federal Highway Administration and reopened in July 2016.
The 3,200 cfs flood in Grapevine Canyon destroyed Scotty's Castle Road (aka North Highway or Bonnie Claire Road) between Grapevine and the park border. The area is temporarily closed to all public access. Federal Highway Administration is redesigning the road and anticipates starting construction in January 2018.
Flooding at Scotty's Castle
The October flood in Grapevine Canyon was much larger than any flood event since the construction of Scotty's Castle in the 1920s. The maximum flow was estimated at 3,200 cubic feet per second and deposited debris over 10 feet high.
Flood water surrounded multiple buildings in the Death Valley Scotty Historic District. The most severely damaged historic building was the Garage/Longshed, which functions as the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. The flood forced open doors, broke windows, broke interior walls, and smashed one exterior wall. Flood waters four feet deep left several feet of mud and rocks inside the building.
Hacienda: Damage due mud up to four feet thick deposited inside the building. The mud and furniture has been removed.
Visitor Center (Garage/Longshed): interior wall damage, exterior wall damage, broken doors, broken windows. Mud, furniture, and exhibits have been removed.
Scotty's Castle (Main House & Annex): The roof leaked in several places, allowing moisture into the building.
Museum collection: 139,000 archives, furnishings, and other artifacts are threatened by lack of heating, air conditioning, humidity control and fire suppression. The museum collection has been moved to temporary storage until repairs are completed at Scotty's Castle.
Water system: The spring house, one of two reservoirs, and the pipeline were destroyed.
Electricity: Over 20 power poles were washed away. SoCal Edison replaced the power line to Scotty's Castle, but more repairs are needed within the historic district.
Sewer: The leach field was destroyed.
Historic Pool: Was filled with mud and water. The mud has all been removed by a combination of hand tools and heavy equipment.
Historic Bridge: Needs repairs.
Historic Fence: Over a mile of historic concrete fence posts were washed out.
Grounds: Mud and rocks up to four feet deep surrounded several buildings and covered the parking lot and picnic area. This has mostly been removed by trail crews and fire crews loaned from other national parks.
Scotty's Castle Closed Temporarily
Death Valley National Park staff are excited about the success so far in securing funding to repair utiltiies, infrastructure, and buildings at Scotty's Castle. However, these projects are large and will take time to plan and implement. The park is targeting to reopen Scotty's Castle in 2019.