Surprise Canyon Trail is an easy hike into a deep canyon with towering sandstone walls. The canyon ends in a very narrow slot and then is impassible.
For an enjoyable full days outing you can drive a short ways further down the road and hike into the Headquarters Canyon, a slot canyon of similar length to Surprise Canyon. You could then drive to the Bullfrog Marina. We did neither of these.
To make a round trip out of this, return back up the Nortom-Bullfrog Road to the junction of the Burr Trail and return via the Burr Trail, SR12, and SR24. To do so, turn left on the Burr Trail Road which goes up a series of steep gravel switchbacks and then across a beautiful landscape to SR12 at Boulder. Turn right onto SR12 to Torrey, and then right onto SR24 returning to the Capitol Reef Visitor Center.
The total distances are 9.1 miles to the Nortom-Bullfrog Road, 33.2 miles to the Burr Trail, 3.6 miles return to Surprise Canyon, 35.9 miles to Boulder, 36.7 miles to SR24 in Torrey, and 10.7 miles back to the Capitol Reef Visitor Center for a total round trip of 129 miles.
The Nortom-Bullfrog Road is paved for the first 10 miles. The remainder of the road is wash boarded gravel.
The Burr Trail road is gravel up the switchbacks to the top of the Waterpocket Fold and shortly after that is paved to Boulder. Depending upon how recently the road up the switchbacks has been graded, it could prove to be difficult for a 2 wheel drive vehicle.
Overall rating = easy
Distance: 2.0 miles – easy
Elevation gain: <100 feet - easy Terrain: Wide hard packed trail with a few boulders - easy Exposure: None - easy To see the trail rating system used here see Trail Rating System
From the Capitol Reef Visitor Center take Highway 24 east for 9.1 miles to mile marker 88.9 and the signed Notom-Bullfrog turn-off. Turn south at the intersection and follow the Notom-Bullfrog Road for 33.2 miles to the signed Burr Trail Junction.
At the Burr Trail Junction the road continues straight ahead for a further 1.8 miles to a small parking area on the west side of the road.
For a one page printout of the directions click Directions to Surprise Canyon
This is an easy family hike of about 2 miles total length. The route to the canyon mouth crosses a fairly flat desert area passing through and along the Halls Creek wash. The route is easy to follow going in but you need to pay careful attention to landmarks along the route as it is easy to get off the trail on the way back across the flats.
Hike up Surprise Canyon into the reef. After about 1 mile, the canyon narrows and deepens, but it never becomes tight enough to call it a real slot. It is scenic and is an easy hike with no real obstacles.
The route ends against a narrow slot and chute where most hikers turn around. It is apparently possible to navigate through this bottleneck and up into the higher canyon, which curves around to the north. However, the canyon widens out and becomes less interesting above the chute. We stopped at this blockage.