Surprise Canyon and Headquarters Canyon (see my previous post)—Surprise’s nearby, more-frequented cousin—share a number of common traits. For one, they both cut deeply through the Waterpocket Fold, the 100-mile uplift in the earth’s crust that is the signature feature of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Both can be hiked in less than 1 ½-2 hours each, and both showcase spectacular cliffs and diverse plant habitats. But while the highlight of Headquarters is its narrow, sinuous slot, the best of Surprise Canyon comes at its wide, open ending, where the sheer walls of Navajo sandstone form a striking amphitheater. Which canyon is better? It’s hard to say. Visitors to the blissfully-secluded Waterpocket District are advised to check out both to judge for themselves.
If coming from the north (as most visitors do), the parking area for Surprise Canyon is located 34 miles down the Notom Bullfrog Road from Highway 24. At 32.5 miles, you will pass a signed turnoff to the right which heads toward the Burr Trail switchbacks; stay left and continue 1.8 miles to the trailhead, on your right (there is a sign marked “Surprise Canyon Hiker’s Parking”).
Heading for the colorful Waterpocket Fold ahead, the Surprise Canyon route begins by striking out across a broad, sandy basin dominated by two invasive species—cheatgrass and Russian thistle. At 0.2 mile, the trail descends through a nasty cut bank carved by Halls Creek, after which it climbs the slope of a small, grassy hill to the left. A number of zig-zagging cattle treads split off from here—to stay on course, bear left (southwest), toward the grassy knoll, wherever possible.
After descending the other side of the hill, the trail weaves around a smattering of low ridges of orange Entrada sandstone, while the sight of berry-bearing juniper trees becomes increasingly frequent. Sporadically-placed cairns generally mark the path up until a point where the route drops steeply through reddish soil to a broad wash bottom, the third or fourth encountered on the hike. You have now entered a sedimentary rock layer known as the Carmel formation—which in this area has been uplifted to form deep red, triangular-shaped “chevrons.” Aside from a couple shortcuts over meanders, the route from here on simply follows the wash bottom into the heart of the Waterpocket Fold.
Like Headquarters, the mouth of Surprise Canyon too sports a beautiful, salmon-colored streak that follows the contours of the Navajo sandstone wall like a pink ribbon in the wind. The sandy wash is occasionally interrupted by short stretches of slickrock, where small, bowl-shaped depressions may be filled with water. A series of side canyons veer off to the right; at least one is likely to lead over a low slickrock pass to the next canyon over to the north.
At around ¾ mile, the canyon narrows as the wash hugs a towering vertical wall to the right. Soon after, a 5-foot pouroff is easily bypassed on the left. At the one-mile mark, the left bank is bounded by a small alcove, after which the canyon thins to a tight, impassable slot and a 15-foot pouroff.
This is the end of the hike as advertised. Return the way you came, or…
…continue on by climbing a steep, hiker-made route up the talus slope on the left (one could also try to surmount the ledgey rock face immediately beside the slot, but this is not recommended due to exposure). The social trail is lightly-cairned and continues for quite a ways up canyon, though the constant scrambling up and down the brushy, crumbly slopes is not particularly fun. It is possible to continue up the wash itself beyond the pouroff, but the boulders get bigger and more difficult to avoid as you continue upstream. A better option is to try to climb partway up the talus slope on the right or left for sweeping views of the canyon. Here the tremendous magnitude of the 500-foot walls is on full display.