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Flood from Nowhere. In Which Two Intrepid Backpackers Experience a Nighttime Flash Flood.

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

A summer sojourn in 25 Mile Canyon turns into an aquatic adventure for two unsuspecting backpackers.

25 Mile canyon drains a huge surface of Navajo sandstone. There is hardly any vegetation to slow the spread of water, so a summer downpour sheets off slick rock, funnels down channels in the stone, surges down gullies and floods stream beds. The watershed is so large that a localized thunderstorm several miles over the canyon walls will go unnoticed and the resulting flash flood comes as a total surprise.

25 Mile Canyon is well-known (in certain circles, admittedly) as one leg of a loop trip starting from the Egypt trailhead off Hole-in-the-Rock road. One popular route leaves from Egypt, goes down Fence Canyon to the Escalante River, then follows the river downstream, past Neon, Ringtail, and Baker canyons to 25 Mile.

There are a couple of routes out of 25 Mile back to Egypt, but each of them requires a long hike over slick rock hill and dale. It is mostly hill though, with 1400 feet of net elevation gain.

The loop hike can, of course, be done in the opposite direction. The route down to 25 Mile is pretty easy, but finding a way into 25 Mile can be a challenge. It is always easier to find a way up and out rather than down and in.

Thought of as one leg of a loop hike, the canyon always seemed more of a means to an end to me than a destination—until I decided to make 25 Mile Canyon the destination.

The entrance canyon to 25 Mile was crowded with reeds and very young cottonwoods. Was this a sign? Photo © Donald J. Rommes

A friend joined me on the two-day trip. We started from Early Weed Bench, dropped into the slick rock wilderness and headed cross-country to a tributary of 25 Mile that would be our entry point. It was a little tricky getting down a very steep slope of sandstone into the canyon, but lowering our packs by rope and rigging up a hand line was helpful.

The side canyon was filled with tall reeds that made a brittle rustling sound as we passed through. There were a few young cottonwoods, but no mature trees. We reached 25 Mile in about 20 minutes.

This part of 25 Mile has a lot of vegetation on the banks, so most of the walking is in the stream bed. Further upstream, the canyon narrows, becomes very marshy, and is choked with thick vegetation—making it extremely difficult to negotiate. As planned, we headed downstream.

The perennial stream in 25 Mile Canyon frequently flows directly over slickrock. Here. the very shallow water reflects the afternoon colors of canyon walls and juniper trees. Photo © Donald J. Rommes.

Picking our way through the vegetation, walking in and out of the stream, we arrived at a place that looked good for camp. At a bend of the river, next to the canyon wall, a scrub oak-covered hill rose 25 feet above a pool in the slickrock stream bed. We set up camp for the night.

It had been sunny all day and it was hot, so I decided against the tent. I spread out a tarp and threw my lightweight sleeping bag on it. We ate, and later filtered some water from the shallow stream. The water ran directly over rock. trickling gently down a wide little slope and collecting in a shallow pool where stream met canyon wall. Then, following the curving course of the canyon, it continued gently on its way.

The night air was muggy and still. There was no air movement and it was too hot to sleep. The adult part of me knew it was safest to camp well above the streamed in flash flood-prone areas, but, the child part of my brain reasoned that the stars were out and it was dry. And even though soundless flashes of light could be seen over the northwestern horizon, it argued, they had to be at least 10 miles away. Convinced, I dragged my tarp and sleeping bag closer to the water where there was a slight breeze. Soon, I was sleeping like a baby.

After midnight, with the gibbous moon high in the sky, I was awakened by my friend calling to me. I could hardly make out what he was saying over the roar of water.

I struggled to waken, "What did you say?"

"I said, get away from the river!"

"What river?" I responded, confused.

Then I noticed that I was laying six inches from a tumultuous brown current, The moonlight illuminated a powerful new river, surging wide and deep and chocolate-brown, where the gentle stream had been. Waterfall noises reflected from the nearby canyon wall. The air smelled heavily of mud.

Impressed and unnerved, I hustled back up the hill to the safety of elevation and oaks.

By sunrise, the river had disappeared, replaced now by a shallow brown stream, pools, and mud.

The morning coffee tasted especially good that day, While waiting for some of the flood water to evaporate in the hot sun, we reflected on the evening's events. The day had been hot and sunny. We never heard any rain. Our only clues to a possible flash flood were the silent flashes of distant lightning.

The rainstorm must have been 20 miles away, and it could have rained over several square miles. All that water made its way over the slickrock, down the channels and gullies, into the tributaries of 25 Mile, and finally, to us. Surprise! Surf's up!

We took stock of our present situation. The day looked beautiful, sunny and warm. The stream was back in its channel, shallow and friendly once again. Should we continue the hike?

The adult part of the brain thought it was safe to continue the trip; the child part eagerly agreed. What could go wrong?

To be continued ...


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