Water is the lifeline of the desert. It brings vitality to dry earth, allows plants to sprout, and animals to flourish; even when temperatures reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As a hiker (and a north-westerner through and through), I also love water for it’s beauty, refreshing spray, and fun trails.
So while visiting Capitol Reef National Park a few weeks ago with my sister, we set our sights on canyoning at Sulfur Creek. Following a deep canyon through some of the oldest exposed rocks in the park, this 5.5 mile hike features two miles of scenic narrows, three waterfalls, and a cool adventure in the otherwise hot desert.
Kicking up rocks in a dry wash for the first 1.4 miles, we appreciated the geological beauty and flaws of the desert. The wind, over thousands of years, scoured the neighboring rocks and cliff walls creating nooks, crannies, and giants cracks. Green weeds and small shrubs took root in the available shade. For a while, it felt like the wash would never end – and by 20 minutes in I was cursing my sandal choice as small pebbles and sand poked and stabbed at the meat of my feet.
But then we saw it; the water glistening and dancing downstream in the sun. My sister and I broke out into a run to the banks of Sulfur Creek and instantly stuck our toes, splashing and kicking in the cool water. While only a few inches deep and maybe 10-14 feet across, the creek was a true oasis.
Turning east, we then followed the creek as it twisted and turned between the closing in cliffs, which rose several hundred yards above us.Leafy trees offer a little shady when the imposing rocks didn’t squeeze them out. The creek also cut deep, creating big banks and half tunnels that wowed around every bend.
But, then the fun really began! After walking a mile in the creek bed, the walls narrowed and we hit our first waterfall.Tumbling 10-feet through a carved shoot, the waterfall entered a tight canyon, where it undercut the cliff and created a short roof of rock. Bypassing the waterfall, we down-climbed a slickrock ledge and then instantly threw down our packs and wadding into the rushing water. There is nothing like sitting in a waterfall to make my day – especially with my sister by my side.
In the next three miles, we skirted by two more major waterfalls and a few small slopes where we stopped to play and slide into the deep pools to cool off.
For the final waterfall, we opted to take the high trail up and around the waterfall instead of inching across a narrow ledge and then shimmying down a log. To get on the high trail you do have to hike back about 20 yards to find the trail to the south, which is marked by cairns.
Back down at the creek, the final mile or so was another easy and peaceful march through shallow water back to the Visitor Center. With pruney toes and big smiles on our faces, we walked out of Sulfur Creek.
In the eight months of living in Utah so far, this is still my favorite hike in the state.
To hike Surfer Creek, you either need two vehicles to shuttle or be ready to walk the highway for 3-miles to make this trail into a loop. Most guides online and at the visitor center recommend parking at Chimney Rock, near where the trail begins. Then at the end of the day, walk the road back to your car. But with scorching afternoon temperatures and blazing sun, I recommend parking at the Visitor Center in the earlier morning and starting with this 3-mile asphalt trek. At this time of the day, the highway is still cool and shaded and fewer cars are zipping by on this shoulder-less road. When we finished the hike, we were all so happy that we didn’t have to walk the highway back to our car at 1 p.m. in 90 degree heat. Also make sure to give yourself more time to do the hike if you don’t have two vehicles as it then ups a moderate 5.5 mile hike, into a good 8.5 mile hike.
- Length: 5.5 miles one-way (8.5 mile loop)
- Trail head: On the south side of the highway from the Chimney Rock Parking Area
- Season: Spring and fall during warm weather, and summer if there is no chance of rain.
- Maps & directions: Print this online Sulfur Creek hiking guide or pick up a copy from the Capitol Reef visitor center
- Best for: young adults, avid hikers, and family’s with older children