Hiking Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah affords hikers a huge variety of adventures. Slot canyons, slickrock trails, and ancient rock art are just a few of the highlights awaiting those who seek them. There is also the amazing Sulphur Creek hike, and while not officially a park trail, this one is a must-see. Sulphur Creek is one of those rare desert hikes that has it all: a year round stream, red rock vistas, a section of slot canyon and even a portion of goosenecks all nestled under walls that sometimes top 800 feet high. Grab your water shoes and a camera, it’s time to get wet!
The trip begins at the Chimney Rock trailhead. Hikers will need to either leave a shuttle car at the park Visitor Center or plan to hitchhike back to Chimney Rock when the journey is over. From the Chimney Rock parking area, walk across Route 24 and down into a small dry wash. The creek is indeed a popular hike and the Park Service has installed a small sign near the beginning of the wash that reads “Visitor Center: 5 Miles Via Sulphur Creek.” The first mile or so of the hike twists, turns and descends this dry wash until meeting up with Sulphur at the bottom. Though it’s not the main attraction, the views are great: red rock panoramas, interesting formations and plenty of desert flowers line the trail.
When you first arrive at the bottom, Sulphur Creek is wide and shallow. It is possible to explore up canyon for a good distance, but the best portion is downstream. For the first mile or so it is possible to follow the stream without actually getting wet, but what fun is that? Sulphur Creek is muddy, cold and has a slight odor (had to get its name from somewhere, right?) Expect meandering curves, sandy banks, and the occasional rock alcove along the first portion of the hike. As you head further east the walls grow ever higher overhead.
The hike really starts to deliver when you reach the goosenecks. The creek bends back on itself several times over the next mile, and from a lookout point on the canyon rim it truly does resemble a goose’s neck. After making your way through this portion the hike takes on a whole new persona. If you haven’t got your feet wet by now, you’ll no longer have the option. The canyon walls close in and Sulphur Creek becomes a slot. This was my personal favorite section of the hike; most of the slots I have hiked betray their origins by only showcasing small pools or trickling flows of water, but it’s plain to see how this section was carved out by the stream. During my late spring hike, the water never rose above waist high. There are two waterfalls in this area that hikers will need to scramble around. Both can be bypassed safely on the right sides. There is a third and final obstacle (another waterfall) that drops off about 6 feet and requires you to simply jump off of it to the sandy area below. When I hiked the creek, there was a log propped up against the waterfall that made scrambling down possible, but there’s no guarantee how long the log will be there.
The final portion of this hike is very mellow. The stream becomes a gentle trickle with rocky beaches and alcoves before finally ending at the rear of the Visitor Center. The sign at the start says this hike is 5 miles long but it sure feels like more! It took our group about four hours to complete the hike, and we had people of all ability levels along for the journey. Make sure you have a good pair of water shoes or a pair of sneakers you don’t mind getting wet; also, bring plenty of water as Sulphur Creek isn’t fit for drinking and is muddy/silty enough to clog even the best filter.
To see more, check out the video!