Caught in a Flash Flood in the Mojave National Preserve

Flash Flood waters in Wild Horse Canyon

Flash Flood waters in Wild Horse Canyon


The weekend of July 26-28, 2013 was disastrous around the Mojave Desert. From Coso Junction in the Upper Mojave, down to the Mojave National Preserve in the lower Mojave, fierce thunderstorms dumped so much water that the ground didn’t have anything to do with it except turn roads and washes into violent rivers. In Death Valley, eleven roads had to be closed due to the damage caused by these storms, including the paved Badwater Road, where the fast-flowing water ripped up the pavement.

I spent the weekend in the Mojave National Preserve with a client, arriving on Friday morning, and dodging our first storm hiking back from an undisclosed location near Cima Dome, within hours of arrival. The rest of Friday played out about the same, merely missing storms as they would stampede up the valleys.

Friday night was spent at the Mid Hills camp ground, just a few years back a thunderstorm ripped through this area causing a massive forest fire that has yet to be recovered from. The skies cleared that evening, and sleeping was peaceful, only to be awaken that morning around 7am by rain drops and thunder clouds.

My client and I, hastily tore down camp, filling my Jeep with our gear. We intended to spend the day just a few miles north of the camp ground in Wild Horse Canyon. With the rain coming down we decided to it may be best to rearrange our plans, so we headed to Rock Springs. As we approached Rock Springs, we noticed a wash just a few yards away from the road had a massive flow of water, it this point I think we both realized that today was going to be interesting.

When we arrived at Rock Springs, I was shocked by what I saw. The spring had a lake forming at the end of its drainage, and water was pumping out of the canyon. A series of small waterfalls had water violently gushing over them. For those familiar with Rock Springs, you realize that this spring normally has little flow, with a majority of the water being stored behind the dam that was built by the U.S. Army when this was an outpost along the Mojave Road.



An unusual site at Rock Springs. Normally this spring provides only a small trickle of water.


From Rock Springs, we made our way to Indian Well; we managed to spend a good hour / hour and half here with no real threat of storms. The sky turned blue, and beautiful.

After Indian Well, we decided to spend the rest of the day in Woods Wash (probably not the safest plan). Making our way nine miles down wash from Cedar Canyon Road was tricky. I had previous driven the route just a couple of weeks prior, and a defined road was carved out of the wash. From storms in the weeks that had followed, the wash had returned to exactly that, a wash. There was no defined road, and the wash had become cluttered with debris and boulders. After some time, we arrived at the Wilderness Boundary.

Within minutes of our arrival, thunder was clapping, and lightening was striking just a short distance away in Black Canyon, and we could see a line of heavy rain headed our way. Lucky for us, the storm never actually made it to us, and we managed to have an enjoyable afternoon exploring the rock art in Woods Wash.

That evening we returned to the Mid Hills camp ground for another night under the stars. The days’ storms had cleared, and the sky was a beautiful shade of blue. That evening the star-gazing was wonderful, not a cloud in the sky. The campfire roared, and the smell of hotdogs and hamburgers were in the air.

We awoke on Sunday to a beautiful summer morning. Temperatures were just right, and again, the sky was clear. We enjoyed the morning with some breakfast and coffee before heading out on the last day of our adventure. Since we didn’t manage to get to Wild Horse Canyon the day previous, that was our destination.

We arrived at our  point along Wild Horse Canyon Road around 10am. From here we had a short mile and a half hike into the two locations that we had set out to see. I parked the Jeep off to the side of the road so that others could pass by easily. We hiked into the first location, and spent a couple of hours photographing the site. The sky was blue above us, but a storm could be seen, in the distance, likely slamming Woods Wash, where we had spent the previous day. We thought nothing of it; we had seen plenty of storms from far away over the previous couple of days.

My client and I decided to spend some time scouting the area for any sites that we had not been aware of in the area, and within a short period of time, we felt that we had found the mother load of Native American pictographs tucked away in the cave along the base of Wild Horse Mesa. We spent the next hours photographing, and relaxing in this cave.

As we began planning to leave the cave, and begin the short trek to our next site, the sky turned black, and we heard thunder quickly approaching. We decided to stay put in the cave, knowing that we would have shelter from the coming storm. The storm reached us, and pounded us with pouring rain for nearly an hour. At one point, I said, “I’m worried about the Jeep.” I didn’t give it much thought after that, as the ground below us didn’t have any sitting water on it.

I shot this video of the storm, while tucked away in the cave:


Once the storm had passed we left our shelter, after managing to stay high and dry. The cave was a blessing. As we made our way to our next destination, we could hear a rush of water in the distance. At this point I began to freak out; I was picturing my brand-new Jeep that I had purchased just a month prior floating down a river of flood water. We abandoned our route, and began making our way back to where we had parked on Wild Horse Canyon Road. As we got closer to the road, the sounds of rushing water continued to get louder, and eventually we came upon the strong river of water that we had heard in the distance.


The river of water in Wild Horse Canyon that we could hear flowing in the distance.

The river of water in Wild Horse Canyon that we could hear flowing in the distance.


A short video of the flood waters:


We followed the flood waters as there was no possibility of crossing until the water retreats. Shortly a second stream of water began flowing on the other side of us, essentially putting us on a small island.


The second stream of water, trapping us on an island.

The second stream of water, trapping us on an island.


Continuing to make our way back,  I eventually see my Jeep, in the distance, and it doesn’t look good. The landscape around where the Jeep was parked had changed, and I didn’t recognize it as the place that I had parked. I figure at this point that the Jeep has been pushed downstream, but I eventually notice that it is in the same place that I had parked it, but the road was now the fierce river that we had feared, and my Jeep was in the middle of it.


My brand new Jeep inundated with water. Look closely and you can see the water line up the side of the doors.

My brand new Jeep inundated with water. Look closely and you can see the water line up the side of the doors.


Once the water receded to a level that I was comfortable with, I entered the stream to figure out just what kind of position we had gotten into. I started the Jeep, placed it in low-4, and it wouldn’t budge. I got out, and dug the tires out of almost two feet of sand and rocks; it still wouldn’t budge. I realized at the point that the entire undercarriage was under a layer of sand, and rocks. Not having a small enough shovel to dig out under the Jeep, I spent the next two hours hand digging the Jeep out, while my client worked on diverting the remaining flowing water to a different channel. Even after hours of digging the Jeep out, it still wouldn’t budge, the sand was too wet, the tires couldn’t get the traction that they needed to get out.

Having no cell phone reception, and miles from the nearest paved road, it was looking as if I would have to, for the first time, use my SPOT satellite messenger to get help. Right around the time that I’m considering using the device, another Jeep makes its way around the bend. The two friendly gentlemen inside stop, and immediately stop and pitch in. After a few attempts of using their Jeep to pull my Jeep out, it finally manages to become free of the sandy grave.


The sandy grave that my Jeep was stuck in. The picture does not justice in showing just how deep this hole was.

The sandy grave that my Jeep was stuck in. The picture does not justice in showing just how deep this hole was.


Covered in sand, and mud we call the adventure over. I return my client to Baker, CA so that he may make his way back home to Las Vegas. Upon approaching Baker, we drive straight into a massive sand storm, adding salt to the already exposed wounds from earlier that day.  We grabbed a quick bite of dinner at Arby’s before dropping him off as his vehicle.

It wasn’t until the following day that I could get a good look at the damage done to the Jeep. While it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I wasn’t expecting to find that the interior had been flooded, I never even noticed it the day prior. Water and muck managed to make its way through the bottom of the Jeep leaving the carpets filled with a swampy, disgusting mess. I spent the next three days ripping everything out of the Jeep, steam cleaning the carpets, and putting it all back together. Luckily, there is no smell, and I managed to clean it up to where the Jeep has been returned to previous state.


About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.