Sidewinder Canyon is located at the base of the Black Mountains on the east side of Death Valley National Park south of Badwater Basin. The canyon is fairly wide with a gravel bottom and forty-foot stone walls on both side. Within these walls lie tight slot canyons with pour-overs, carve outs, and dark passages that beg to be explored. There are three slot canyons off the south wall of the canyon and other slightly wider side canyons worth experiencing. The trailhead is unmarked and the trail only has occasional cairns along the way for guidance, creating a remote trek in a Death Valley canyon.
The narrow slots are not GPS friendly, so the exact length of this hike is difficult to provide. Plan to hike about four miles. The trailhead lies at 240 feet below sea level and the start of the third slot is around 400 feet above.
The mouth of the canyon is difficult to spot from the trailhead. Begin hiking south toward the gravel fan exiting the canyon. Cairns and footprints will appear, marking the way. After 0.4 miles, the path enters the canyon. Turn left and march up the semi-steep gravel. A side canyon on the left and another on the right come before the first real slot canyon. The side canyon to the left climbs gradually up out of the canyon, while the canyon on the right goes back for some distance before dead-ending at a dry falls. Either is worth checking out, especially on the way back.
The first slot canyon is the most interesting. It has areas so dark a flashlight is required, and venturing up its narrow winding passages feels like an adventure into uncharted territory.
Finding the slot is a bit tricky. Look for a wide opening on the right side (south side), 0.6 miles from the mouth of the canyon. The entrance to the slot canyon is on the left side of the opening, covered over with large boulders.
Only a small window exists through which to access the slot. Climb through the opening and around the boulders lodged in the entryway. It’s hard to believe this is way, but it is. Beyond the boulders, the canyon is clear but only a few feet wide with numerous elegant bends and sharp curves.
It takes about five minutes to reach a point where technical climbing is required to continue. This comes at the back of a dark chamber, where the walls curl in overhead, allowing for only small windows of light. The canyon is incredibly dark – creepy dark – but there is also something exciting about stepping into a place like this. If you are not prepared to climb up a steep rock wall in a dark grotto, turn around and head back to Sidewinder Canyon.
The second slot comes just a tenth of a mile farther. The entrance is not hidden this time, just look for the next obvious departure on the south wall. Slot two is about three times longer than the first, but without the dramatic dark passages. What the canyon does have is an archway carved out by the floodwaters that created these canyons. Past the arch, the canyon widens dramatically before narrowing again. The canyon has about ten pour-overs of a few feet in height to climb up, leading to a 12-foot dry falls that prevents non-climbers from continuing.
The third slot is a quarter mile past the second, but its explore-ability has been diminished by heavy rains that swept gravel down the canyon in the spring of 2010. A large boulder not far from the start of the canyon halts hiker’s advancement. Previously, one could crawl through a space around the base of the rock, but too much gravel has deposited there now to continue that way. It would be possibly to chimney up the side of the chokestone, but descending the other side might prove challenging, and this would not be good place to break a leg. A fine arch is just beyond the entrance to the third slot, so it is still worth venturing in to the chokestone.
Sidewinder Canyon continues beyond the slots, narrowing considerably. Just past the third slot is a large overhang on the south wall of the canyon where floodwaters have carved out the rock. Continue up canyon for another mile, or return to the trailhead.
The walk down over the lose gravel takes far less time than the ascent. In this direction you are also treated to a nice view of Telescope Peak. A hike up the neighboring Willow Canyon begins from the north end of the trailhead parking lot for those with additional time and energy.
To get to the trailhead: From Furnace Creek, drive 31.2 miles miles south on Badwater Road (15 miles past Badwater Basin) and turn east (left) on an unmarked dirt road on the outside of a sharp bend in the road. Drive through a small working gravel pit and turn right into the southern end of the parking area not far from Badwater Road.
Trailhead address: Badwater Road, Death Valley National Park, CA 92328
Trailhead coordinates: 36.0650, -116.7448 (36° 03′ 54″N 116° 44′ 41.3″W)
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