Little Wild Horse Canyon

Little Wild Horse Canyon (Photo by Fabio Achilli attribution)

A seven-year-old Utah girl has died and her three-year-old sister remains missing a day after their family was caught in a flash flood on May 11 in Little Wild Horse Canyon, a popular slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park.

The Emery County Sheriff's Office reported that over 20 hikers were caught in flash floods after a thunderstorm, triggering a multi-agency search and rescue operation.

Over 67 personnel from Emery County, Grand County, Sevier County and Wayne County searched until late May 11 and resumed the next morning according to authorities, discovering a child's piece of clothing approximately 7 miles down a wash.

Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk gave an on-scene interview to Utah outlet Fow13 News on May 12. He recounted how officers responding to the scene on the afternoon of May 11 found the father with the body of his seven-year-old daughter.

“The father of these girls is on scene helping with the search” for the three-year-old, Funk told reporters.

The Emery County Sheriff's Office said they have the "deepest sympathy to the family that has suffered this tragic loss. We also express gratitude to all who are assisting in this search."

All other hikers are believed to be accounted for, authorities said.

Flash floods are dramatic events and can carry huge amounts of sand and debris and spread them across vast areas. Funk said the search area is “huge,” stretching almost 30 miles down washes from the canyon.

Funk said getting caught in a flash flood gushing through a narrow canyon like Little Wild Horse would be like going “through a washing machine.”

He described how hikers may have found themselves in such a dangerous situation.

“It’s happened to me before,” Funk said. “You won’t even see the weather, and I’ve been down in a slot canyon and then all of a sudden water’s just showing up, and it’s 30 or 40 miles away that [the rainstorm] hit.”

Asked if the mission had changed rescue to a recover mission, the sheriff said the group remains hopeful. 

Funk emphasized his gratitude to everyone involved in the search.

“I didn’t even have to call,” he said. “That’s the nice thing about Utah, especially rural Utah. The surrounding counties jumped right in and helped without even being asked.”

The hike through Little Wild Horse Canyon, managed by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the Muddy Creek Wilderness, is popular with day hikers and families for its stretches of narrow slot canyon. It is often linked with the adjacent Bell Canyon to make an 8-mile loop. However, high, narrow canyon walls pose a significant danger if there is a rain storm anywhere in the canyon's drainage area.

“Little Wildhorse and Bell canyons have extreme potential for flash floods,” the BLM said in a statement. “We recommend that visitors use extreme caution and pay attention to the weather when visiting these sites.”

Search and Rescue personnel have asked the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City to provide them with spot weather forecasts for the Little Wild Horse Canyon location while they continue the operation.

This is a developing story and more information will be released as it becomes available. Check our main page at www.moabsunnews.com for the latest.