Distance: 5.8 miles One Way | Time: 2.5 – 3.5 hours | Level: Easy – Moderate | Dog Friendly
Hiking Sulphur Creek Trail is a must when visiting Capitol Reef National Park. The route is every adventurer’s dream, forcing hikers to scramble over rocks, wade waist-deep in water, scale up (or down) waterfalls, and navigate within the depths of a 600-foot canyon.
We knew little of what to expect when we started hiking Sulphur Creek but it quickly become a favorite trail of ours. Not only is it packed with adventure but it’s also way less trafficked than most trails we had been on during our Arizona-Utah road trip.
In this guide, I will cover what to expect when hiking Sulphur Creek, camping recommendations, awesome nearby day trips, and general park information.
Table of Contents
Hiking Sulphur Creek Trail: The Best Water Hike in Capitol Reef National Park
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Things to Know About Capitol Reef National Park
Are there park fees?
There are no general entrance fees for Capitol Reef National Park. The Visitor Center, and many of the trails, can be accessed for free.
However, there is a $20 vehicle fee to drive Scenic Road. Visitors with an America the Beautiful pass do not need to pay this fee
You can find more information on park passes and fees here.
Is Capitol Reef worth seeing?
In short, absolutely!
We happened upon Capitol Reef National Park during our quest from Moab to Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Coming from Moab, the drive itself into the park is unreal.
Passing through the town of Caineville felt like we had been transported into some sort of post-apocalyptic time. The terrain drastically changed from the vibrant orange and red hues we had become accustomed to, to rolling dunes of gray dirt and dust.
The land looked a lot like how I imagined the Moon to feel.
While the landscape of Capitol Reef National Park isn’t quite as daunting as the eerie town of Caineville, it does have a unique vibe of its own.
My first impressions of Capitol Reef were, “It’s green!” By the time we had reached Capitol Reef on our road trip, we had spent about three weeks in Utah. Green grass was not something we had seen in what felt like ages.
Capitol Reef offered a nice change of scenery and, with it, lots of adventure.
How many days do you need in Capitol Reef?
If you really want to experience a variety of the park’s trails, as well as drive the scenic road, I would recommend spending two to three days.
We, unfortunately, only spent one full day and two nights in Capitol Reef. During that time, we were able to stop in at the Visitor Center, hike Sulphur Creek Trail, drive through the park, and spend some slow peaceful sunsets at camp.
We would love to have had more time to drive the scenic road and set foot on more trails.
What to Expect Hiking Sulphur Creek
Figuring out how to get back to the car was the most difficult part of hiking Sulphur Creek. Sulphur Creek is technically classified as a route rather than a trail. The route is point-to-point, meaning you go in one way and come out another.
Having two cars is the best option. With two cars, hikers can drop one vehicle at the Visitor Center and one at the designated Sulphur Creek Trailhead parking lot.
However, if you’re like us and only have one vehicle, you’ll need to park at one or the other and figure out how to get back to your car.
We knew that the most popular way to hike the trail was starting at the Sulphur Creek parking lot and ending at the Visitor Center.
However, we also knew based on looking at the trail map on AllTrails that the trail steadily declined. A steady downhill grade would have been great if we were hiking the trail point-to-point. Unfortunately, hiking three miles on hot pavement back up to the car seemed less appealing.
We made the call to park at the Visitor Center and hike the trail in reverse so that we could take the downhill road to our vehicle. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a great way to go about getting back to your car.
We kept hoping someone would be nice enough to let us hitch a ride, but it never happened.
Regardless of the long and hot return, we had an incredible time hiking Sulphur Creek Trail and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Sulphur Creek Trail
If you opt to hike the trail in reverse like us, the trailhead begins behind the Visitor Center. We parked at the Visitor Center and followed a small footpath around the back until we found ourselves in the wash.
The trail begins flat as you wind through the gorge. We made a point to begin the hike just after sunrise, beating the sun into the canyon. The terrain constantly switches between dirt, loose cobblestone, gravel, mud, sand, and water.
There are three waterfalls along the trail. We visited Capitol Reef in the peak of summer so the water was not flowing down any of the falls. Still, there was plenty of water to wade through and navigate around. We loved the versatility of the trail.
More than once, it seemed possible to maneuver around the water instead of going through it, but where’s the adventure in that? We got in the water every chance we got.
Since it was summer and the water was murky, it was completely comical watching us try and wade through the water without slipping or stubbing our toes.
Not only is the hike fun, but it’s also stunning. The trail is situated 600 feet below the gorge rim, completely encompassed by towering red walls. The rock formations are captivating and never-ending.
One moment the trail has you up to your waist in water, while the next you’re being forced to scramble over broken boulders. There’s never a dull moment when hiking Sulphur Creek Trail.
The best part? Chances are high that you’ll get to experience most of the trail alone.
As I mentioned earlier, we started hiking Sulphur Creek Trail just after sunrise and didn’t see a single hiker until we were nearly done with the trail.
At one point, as I was wading through the water with my backpack over my head I thought to myself, “This must be what The Narrows trail in Zion is like!”
Cole and I ended up hiking The Narrows one week later and you know what? Sulphur Creek is better.
Hiking Sulphur Creek was like getting to hike The Narrows without the hoards of other people. The trail also offers more variety than The Narrows – you’re not just wading in water the entire hike.
With Sulphur Creek Trail you’re navigating the wash, scrambling atop boulders, climbing up waterfalls, sliding down them, and taking in the endless views, alone.
If I had to choose one, I’d choose hiking Sulphur Creek, every time.
While the trail is pretty straightforward there are a couple of spots where you could take a wrong turn. Make sure to download the AllTrails app for reference.
Unfortunately, once we got to the end of the Sulphur Creek route we had to hike the road three miles back to the Visitor Center. It’s not ideal but the hike is worth it.
One thing I will say is that I’m really glad we hiked the road down to our car rather than up. Keep that in mind if you also only have one vehicle.
All in all, hiking Sulphur Creek from our car and back was just over 8 miles and took us 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Camping in Capitol Reef
In an attempt to save every penny we could and experience true solitude during our Utah Mighty 5 road trip, we opted for primitive camping.
We found a nice little spot along the Freemont River using the FreeRoam app. It wasn’t as far from the road as other primitive spots we had been camping at, but it was beautiful.
We set our tent up just steps from the river and sat facing the sandstone hills each night. There were a few others taking advantage of the free spot, but all in all, it was nice to feel immersed in nature.
You can find other primitive camping options here.
If camping with facilities is more your style, consider booking a spot at Fruita Campground. The campground has 71 sites, each with a fire pit and picnic table. The campground doesn’t have showers but it does have flushing toilets.
For RV campers there is a communal dump and potable water fill station. There are no electric, water, or sewage hookup sites.
Sites are $20 (increasing to $25 in March 2022) and must be reserved ahead of time between March 1 – October 31. The sites are extremely sought after and can fill months in advance.
From November 1 – February 28 sites are first-come, first-served.
My biggest regret during our time in Capitol Reef was that we didn’t plan ahead in order to make backcountry camping possible. If you enjoy backpacking and exploring off-the-beaten-path, definitely look into these backpacking and overnight routes.
Backcountry permits are free in Capitol Reef and can be acquired at the Visitor Center.
There is no better way to experience a park than to completely isolate yourself in its countryside. Capitol Reef, we will be back for you.
Awesome Parks Near Capitol Reef National Park
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Distance: 52 miles | 1 hr 15 min.
Escalante was another place we wished we had more time for! You absolutely cannot miss a day at Lower Calf Creek Falls. Hiking Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail was one of the most incredible things we did during our entire three-week Arizona-Utah road trip.
There is something incredibly special about witnessing a 126-foot waterfall in the middle of the desert. The best part? You can swim in it.
If you only do one thing in Escalante make it hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Goblin Valley State Park
Distance: 57 miles | 1 hr 20 min.
Goblin Valley State Park is the only park on this list we didn’t personally visit. However, it’s a great nearby option with way fewer crowds than most of the other Utah parks.
Goblin Valley boasts views of unique hoodoos and toadstools, with lots of short and easy-to-explore trails. Had we not had to stick so closely to our itinerary’s timeframe, we would have definitely taken a couple of hours to explore the park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Distance: 113 miles | 2 hrs 10 min.
It would be hard, but if I had to pick one Utah’s Mighty 5 parks that absolutely blew my mind, I would choose Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce is mystical in every sense. I felt like a kid in a candy shop on every single trail we hiked.
I’ve set foot on many trails in my lifetime, and none have ever left the kind of impression Bryce did. It’s worth every bit of the hype.
Distance: 140 miles | 2 hrs
Moab is the spot to access not one but three incredible Utah Parks: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse State Park.
From Moab, you can easily explore Arches, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse. Moab is an adventure town I’ve been dreaming about ever since the day we left.
If you have any more questions about the best hikes in Capitol Reef or any of the other surrounding Utah Mighty 5 parks, drop me a message in the comment section below.
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