Epic Death Valley floods leave wake of destruction

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Flash floods in October scoured roads and bridges from the landscape in Death Valley National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Autumn tourism affected by road damage, but many attractions still open

Staff Report

A series of El Niño-fueled storms in October ravaged parts of Death Valley with floods and mudslides, leading to serious road damage and impacting other park resources, including Devils Hole, a spring that’s home to endangered fish.

According to the National Park Service, flash floods heavily damaged historic structures at Scottys Castle. In a press release, the park service floods pushed over a wall and buried some buildings with about five feet of mud.

The park often sees weather extremes, including flash flooding, but geologists said October’s events were near the edge of the historic envelope.

“The historic Garage/Longshed is severely damaged. It’s not clear yet how much of the building can be salvaged,” said Death Valley National Park superintendent Mike Reynolds.

Flood waters also flowed into the historic Hacienda building up to 2 feet deep, leaving mud and debris behind. The Cook House has a few inches of mud deposited in it.

An engineering report described this flood as the “probable maximum” flood event for Grapevine Canyon, the canyon in which Scotty’s Castle is located. Flood waters deposited debris 15 feet above ground in places. A park ranger observed dumpsters floating out of Grapevine Canyon Sunday night. No one was in Grapevine Canyon during the flood. Concrete k-rails, buried to stabilize roads, were blown out by the flood and moved down the canyon.
“The flash flood through the Scotty’s Castle area was a catastrophic event. We were in sprint mode the first 24 hours while evacuating visitors trapped by flooding. Now park staff need to transition into marathon mode. We’re gearing up for a long, hard recovery,” Reynolds said.
Scotty’s Castle was built in the 1920s as a vacation complex by Chicago millionaires, Albert and Bessie Johnson. Albert Johnson first became interested in Death Valley because of Walter “Death Valley Scotty” Scott’s efforts to recruit Johnson as an investor in his gold mine. By the time Johnson realized Scotty was a con man, the two men had become close friends.
Today Scotty’s Castle is part of Death Valley National Park and is managed by the National Park Service. Scotty’s Castle –and the surrounding Grapevine Canyon –are currently closed to park visitors. It is too early to have a clear estimate of when Scotty’s Castle will reopen to public tours, but it is likely to be at least several months.
Devils Hole, the only natural habitat of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, had large amounts of mud and rocks washed into it on Sunday morning. There were 131 pupfish counted in the September 2015. No population count has been done since a storm washed rocks, mud and clay into Devils Hole, but healthy-looking fish have been seen swimming and spawning.
Badwater Road has extensive amounts of pavement undercut and missing in multiple sections, mostly between Badwater and Shoshone. Artists Drive has gulches carved through the pavement and debris piled on the road. The normally-dry Armagosa River is still flowing into southern Death Valley and across Harry Wade Road and West Side Road. Scotty’s Castle Road, also known as North Highway, is open for 12 miles from CA-190 to the exit of Titus Canyon, but is barricaded and legally closed beyond.
Many attractions in Death Valley National Park are still open. CA-190, the primary east-west route into and through the park is open. Dantes View Road is open, leading to a spectacular view of Death Valley from a vantage point at 5,000 feet. The four wheel drive, high-clearance Titus Canyon Road reopened yesterday. The hotels, restaurants, and general stores at Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, and Furnace Creek are open. Most park campgrounds are open, including Furnace Creek, Sunset, Texas Springs, and Stovepipe Wells.
Visitation in Death Valley National Park usually increases over the course of the fall as temperatures cool down. The annual ’49ers Encampment special event is still scheduled for November 11-15, 2015.
October’s storms have been very localized in their effects. Death Valley averages about 2 inches of rain per year, with less than 1/10th of an inch in October. The weather station at Furnace Creek recorded 1.23 inches of rain so far in October 2015. The rain gauge at Scotty’s Castle measured 2.7 inches of rain on the night of October 18. There are no rain gauges in the areas that flooded across Badwater Road.
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