Surprise Canyon: A Capitol Reef Slot Canyon

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The best part about working at night was that I had all morning to go do stuff and explore.  This time is was Surprise Canyon in Capitol Reef.  It was my second time in the park and this time I had a goal.  

I might not have remembered what it was called before I got there, but I knew where it was.  Surprise Canyon is one of the slot canyons in Capitol Reef and is pretty close to Headquarters Canyon.

After the drive down Burr Trail, it’s not too far into the park.  The trailhead and parking is on the left.  The trail itself is pretty easy to follow, and believe it or not, leads into a wash making it easier to follow.  The first section is among the sagebrush, cactus, and juniper trees.


Once you get to the wash, the canyon walls start to tower over you on both sides.  They never really stop being impressive, at least not for me yet.  Eventually, the trail comes to a bit of a tight spot.  

It becomes a sort of alcove that we couldn’t quite get past.  We decided to turn back there because we weren’t sure if we could get past that.  And we didn’t want to get stuck.  You can probably squeeze through, or climb over, but I would be careful.

It was a pretty cool trail, but I’ve seen other things that I’ve liked far more.  It is a good way to spend a morning or afternoon, though and the views and canyon are pretty stellar.  Maybe next time I would be able to get a little farther along.


National Park Goodies


Slot Canyon safety

Flash floods are a huge risk in slot canyons and people die from that far too often. In May 2020 a 7-year-old girl and her 3-year-old sister died in a flash flood in Little Wild Horse Canyon, a popular slot canyon in the San Rafael Swell. This isn’t even a super narrow canyon. And it’s popular. It can happen anywhere.

In 1997, 11 hikers died in a flash flood in Antelope Canyon (the storm was 15 miles away) and that’s a huge reason you need to go with a tour now.

In 2015, seven people canyoneering also died in a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park. People have even died in flash floods in The Narrows in Zion!

Flash floods are no joke kids. I haven’t seen one in a slot canyon but I did see one right as it was starting in a more open canyon and it really picked up fast. I also saw one in Zion along the Mt. Carmel Highway this summer. It was small but they just happen so fast, please be safe.

  • If you don’t feel comfortable with any climb or narrow squeeze and can turn back, do that! You don’t want to get hurt or stuck and need to be rescued. I linked tons of stories of this below.
  • Make sure you’re following the right fork. A lot of slot canyons have multiple forks or are close to other ones and ending up in the wrong one can have dire consequences (especially in the North Wash area of Utah.)

Where is Surprise Canyon?

This map isn’t exact, but there is a small sign and small parking area at the trailhead.  To get there from Bullfrog head out on Highway 276 and turn left onto Burr Trail and follow that.  Once you get to the T, go left.  After maybe 10-15 minutes you’ll pass into Capitol Reef.  After the sign, it’s a couple more minutes.  The parking area will be on the left.

To get there from the Fruita District of Capitol Reef, head towards Hanksville (away from Torrey) on Highway 24 and turn right onto Bullfrog-Notom Road.  Follow that until you get to the trailhead.  It’s about 35 miles from the turn to the trailhead.


How long is the Surprise Canyon trail?

The trail is about two miles round trip in the Main (South) fork.  There is also a Middle Fork and if you do both forks, the hike will be 3.9 miles round-trip.


How long do I need for the hike?

Just for Surprise Canyon, I would say 1-3 hours depending on how fast you walk, if you do both forks, and how much you stop.  I would make a day out of the hike though, and do Headquarters Canyon nearby and possibly even part of Lower Muley Twist if you’re feeling motivated.


Is the Surprise Canyon hike hard?

Nope! This is a relatively flat hike and pretty easy to follow. It’s a great hike to do the same day as nearby Headquarters Canyon which is also easy.


What is the best time to see Surprise Canyon?

I don’t know if there is a better time of day to go, but there isn’t really a bad time to go.  Summer will be super hot, but once you’re in the narrows sections it gets a little cooler because of the shade.

The only time you should skip it is if it is raining there or nearby.  Even distant rain can make them dangerous with the risk of flash floods and you don’t want to be caught in one of those.  If you’re questioning whether you should go or not because of the weather, I’d skip it.


Do I need a special car to get to Surprise Canyon?

Nope!  Motorcycles drive the Burr Trail/Bullfrog-Notom Road all the time.  I drove it in my Smart Car and my parents Chevy Malibu.  BUT if it is rainy or has been recently, the road may be impassable or in pretty bad shape. 

I would ask around in Bullfrog, Ticaboo, or Capitol Reef before driving it.  Most cars should be perfectly fine on here though.  The end sections of the road are paved, but the whole middle section (in Capitol Reef) is dirt.


What else is there to do near Surprise Canyon in Capitol Reef?

Not tons but enough to keep you busy for a day! You can hike Surprise Canyon, Headquarters Canyon, any amount of Lower Muley Twist, Upper Muley Twist, or to Halls Creek Overlook.


Is the Surprise Canyon hike worth it?

I think so! I wouldn’t go way out of my way for it but if you’re driving Burr Trail, it’s worth the stop. If you only have time for one Capitol Reef slot canyon though, I would go with Headquarters Canyon.

This was where we stopped

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Have you been to Capitol Reef?  What about Surprise Canyon?  What did you think of it?  Do you want to go?

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