Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

The park, located north of Tucson was closed last week after rains caused a wash to flood

Some 300 campers were stranded at Catalina State Park last week after heavy rains caused the Cañada del Oro wash to overflow. The park is located next to the Town of Oro Valley, 6 miles north of Tucson.

They headed back to dry land on Wednesday (January 18, 2023) as park rangers helped campers walk across the receding wash at the park’s entrance. The only road out of the campground was filled with wet sand making it impossible to drive across.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What stops people isn’t the water. It’s the sand.

“Doesn’t matter if you have four-wheel drive, you are going to get stuck,” said Catalina State Park manager Steve Haas. “You are going to get stuck. It is not the water that is going to stop you. It is about 4 to 5 feet of sand from the bottom of the road that is stopping people.”

The park reopened Friday, January 20 as crews continued to clear flooding debris and create a safe path to drive across near the park entrance. Visitors were requested to observe all rules distributed by rangers when entering the park and to use caution as flooding is still possible. Parking is only allowed in designated parking spots.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition, Catalina State Park released the following Facility Information, available on its website:

  • Significant rain and weather events may require day-to-day decisions on remaining open. The fire caused significant runoff and debris that can be dangerous to staff and the public.
  • Many areas of the park look different than they did prior to the Bighorn Fire. The burned areas host hazards such as fallen rocks, trees, debris, and potential flash flooding, and visitors enter these areas at their own risk.
  • Roads near campsites may face flash flooding which could prohibit campers from leaving the park until flooding subsides. 
  • We encourage advance reservations for overnight camping and RV sites.
  • Please maintain awareness of your surroundings and the weather at all times while visiting the park.
Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, this was the only flooding in the park and the campground was not affected. It would be really bad if there was this obstacle plus a whole bunch of flooding where people are located. That was not the case.

Many campers had been at Catalina since the holiday weekend. Some had been making the trek across the wash by foot to get food and supplies in Oro Valley.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A lot of people’s lives were interrupted but they were in a good spot.

Crews worked on Wednesday to try and dig out the sand and waiting for the water level to go down before letting people drive through. Haas said the campers aren’t in any danger. “They are totally safe on the campgrounds. It is outside the floodplain,” said Haas.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rangers said the flooding happens regularly during the summer monsoons. But campgrounds aren’t as busy during the summer.

“This past summer, we were closed 20 nights because of this,” said Haas.

The Big Horn Fire in 2020 took out a lot of vegetation making runoff from rainwater more extreme. The Canada del Oro arroyo and its tributaries carry runoff from the Santa Catalinas during rain storms—a common occurrence that can and does often lead to flooding during monsoon but something that occurs less frequently in the winter.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We found ourselves in a similar situation in February 2010 when we were campimg at Catalina State Park. Since we were self-contained and planned to spend a week camping in the park we were basically unaffected by the flooded wash. The photos in this article were taken at that time.

Campers were eager to get home but grateful to be safe. “We have bathrooms over there, we have fresh running water. This is Arizona, it doesn’t get cold. So, we are fine, but we are ready to go,” said one camper.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona State Parks officials said there are plans and a budget to build a bridge over the wash in the coming years so flooding won’t continue to be a common occurrence. Funding has been approved and the bridge is a work in progress in collaboration with ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation).

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 170 species of birds call the park home.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

One hundred twenty campsites are available that have electricity, and water, and are either tent or RV ready. The campground is located in the shadows of the famed Catalina Mountains. Native birds and wildlife abound and help make any camping trip a memorable experience. Two RV dump stations are available in the park.

Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Details

The park is open year-round

Entrance fee: $7 per vehicle (1-4 Adults)

Camping fee: $25 per vehicle per night

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day use hours: 5 am.-10 pm. daily

Visitor center/park store hours: 8 am.–5 pm. daily

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes