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.

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What to bring on the Surprise Canyon hike

NatGeo National Parks Book – This is one of the best national park guidebooks and I take it on all my park trips.  Plus, it’s got the nice glossy pages.  Buy the book here.

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.  These aren’t totally necessary on this one, but if you have bad knees you may want them.

Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry!  I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese.  There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and humid and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.


Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.

Sunglasses – This is a must, especially with the strong desert sun.  Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and if you’ll be in any slot canyons, they can get cool depending on the time of day and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.


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.


This was where we stopped

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.

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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