One of the really great things about Capitol Reef National Park, and any national park for that matter, is that unless otherwise indicated, you’re free to explore anywhere you want. Inside the Waterpocket Fold, this yields massive opportunities that I didn’t even get to come close to realizing.
Surprise Canyon was my first taste of that kind of exploring in this particular national park. A rough and sandy trail leads back to the mouth of the canyon, but from there, where you head is up to you and your intuition.
Note: There is a lot of cryptobiotic soil in this area (also known as cryptogamic and microbiotic). This is a living soil that takes decades, at best, to even come close to resembling what you’re seeing. Please, stay off of it and do not damage it. If you’re in doubt, then play it safe and don’t step on it. If you do step on it, you will hear the tiny screams of millions of microbes screeching out in horror in a sound that will wreak havoc on human ears and cause your foot to tremble. Seriously. Please stay off it. If you don’t know what it is, ask a ranger about it or view this photo.
Most people tend to walk up the wash to watch the canyon walls close in around them as they head inward. Farther into the canyon, there is a surprising amount of vegetation along the base. Soon enough the canyon walls are very narrow and the occasional obstacle blocks the main route through, though getting around isn’t usually a problem.
I only wound up getting in 1.5 miles due to a steep climb that I didn’t feel safe attempting by myself (above photo). It was a narrow part of the canyon where a relatively steep sandstone wall blocked access, but with another person there to help out, it seemed like it could be easy enough. It just wasn’t a chance I was willing to take alone. If you are able to get past, continue up the canyon as far as you’d like. There’s no real destination here other than to see what surprises the canyon has for you.
Getting there: From the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center, head east on Highway 24 for 9 miles, then make a right onto Notom-Bullfrog Road. Continue heading south for 34 miles, heading straight through the junction with the Burr Trail. The trailhead will be shortly after that on the right. There will be a small parking area big enough for about 3-4 cars.