Scotty's Castle Flood

Damage to Scotty's Castle Road
A flash flood on October 18, 2015 washed away sections of Bonnie Clare Road (aka Scotty's Castle Road). The picture shows a National Park Service employee for scale. Many of the historic concrete fence posts were also washed away.

NPS photo

During only five hours on the night of October 18, 2015, Scotty's Castle received 2 3/4 inches of rain. This followed a half-inch of rain the day before. The rain and hail fell on steep, mostly-bare slopes in Grapevine Canyon, didn't soak into the ground, and quickly caused a flash flood of mud and rocks headed towards Scotty's Castle. This was part of a series of floods over two weeks that hit isolated sections of the park, seeminly at random.

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 at a high point on the rim of Uhehebe Crater. That night a park ranger watched power poles and metal dumpsters float out of Grapevine Canyon—an initial indicator of the flood's impacts.

 

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.

 
Flood-damaged exterior wall
The flood forced its way into a storeroom in the back of the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center and slammed against this south wall from the inside. Built as a garage/workshop in the 1920s by Albert Johnson, this is the building closest to the parking lot.

NPS photo

Flooding at Scotty's Castle

The 2015 flood 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. Fortunately, the storm did only minor damage to the main house at Scotty's Castle, but many other buildings or facilities were heavily damaged.

  • Bonnie Clare Road: The flood idestroyed most of the 8-mile-long Bonnie Clare Road Road (aka North Highway or Scotty's Castle Road). Bonnie Clare Road is closed from the park boundary (where it becomes NV-267) to the juntion of North Highway and Ubehebe Crater road near Grapevine Ranger Station. Federal Highway Administration redesigned the road to increase its resistance to future floods. Reconstruction started late in 2018 and is scheduled for completion in November 2019. However, Bonnie Clare Road will remain closed to the public until safety hazards from other construction projects are done, expected to be October 2021.
  • Visitor Center ( historic Garage/Longshed): The most severely damaged historic building was the Garage, which functions as the site's Visitor Center. The flood broke through windows, doors, and even walls. The flood left four feet of mud and rocks inside the building. An architectural/engineering firm has designed repairs. The National Park Service and the California State Historic Preservation Officer are close to signing an agreement on how to mitigate impacts to the historic building by a proposed widening of the breezeway door (to allow floods to pass through the breezeway instead of breaking into the L-shaped building) and a proposed flood wall. Construction is scheduled for August 2020 - August 2021.
 
The historic concrete bridge is seen in the background, viewed from the east side. In the foreground is an extensive area covered by articulated concrete blocks.
Albert Johnson planned for this bridge to be the formal entry to Scotty's Castle. The flood scoured away about 8 feet of material under the bridge, exposing the foundation. This articulated concrete block will prevent undercutting by future floods.
  • Hacienda: This historic building serves as staff housing (top floor) and staff offices (basement floor). Damage due mud up to four feet thick deposited inside the building. An architectural/engineering firm has designed repairs and the California State Historic Preservation Officer has concurred with the designs. Construction is scheduled for August 2020 - August 2021.
  • Scotty's Castle (Main House & Annex): The roof leaked in several places, allowing moisture into the building. Minor repairs have taken place; more are needed.
  • 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 away from the park. The musuem collection will be returned to display in the Castle after the HVAC is replaced.
  • Water system: The spring house, one of two reservoirs, and the 4,000-foot pipeline were destroyed. The construction contract began in September 2019, and includes two sections of directional drilling to connect to a waterline installed under the newly-armored Bonnie Clare Road.
  • Electricity: Over 20 power poles were washed away. Southern California Edison replaced the power line to Scotty's Castle. A contractor began work on repairs within the historic district in September 2019.
  • Sewer: The leach field was destroyed. A contractor started excavating for a new leach field in September 2019.
  • 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: The bridge created a pinch point for the flood, which caused the flood to rush under the narrow bridge span like water rushing through a hose when pinched. The ground under the bridge and around its foundation was scoured down by about 8 feet. Arcticulated concrete block and other erosion-control features have been installed upstream and downstream of the bridge.
  • Historic Fence: Over a mile of historic concrete fence posts were washed out. The section of the fence adjacent to Bonnie Clare Road has been reproduced and installed by the same contractors who rebuilt the road.
  • 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. Work is needed on specific features, like the watercourse.

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 Bonnie Clare Road and Scotty's Castle in the fall of 2021.
 

For More Information:

General history of Scotty's Castle.

A series of short videos about Scotty's Castle repairs are available.

Scotty's Castle Environmental Assessment
Bonnie Clare Road Environmental Assessment

Past press releases about Scotty's Castle can be found here.

Page updated 10/11/2019.

Last updated: October 11, 2019

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Death Valley, CA 92328

Phone:

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