Sidewinder Canyon in the Southern area of Death Valley National Park, California offers a series of intricate slot canyons with a variety of experiences from weaving around many frequent twists and turns to moderate rock climbing over vertical ledges, some 8-10ft high to scrambling up rocky inclines to even crawling through tight openings. Long stretches of the slot canyons are just wide enough to fit the width of your body without turning sideways, and the vertical walls on either side are around 40-75ft tall on average. In places, it’s almost like being in a cave!
However, for the most part there is enough light filtering down from above that you will not need to turn on your head lamp. And, the light filtering down through the narrow upper opening casts a multitude of shades and colors within the slot canyons. Looking up you will see wild rugged rocky ledges above in every shape imaginable catching the full sunlight.
Unlike Anniversary Narrows in the Muddy Mountains and Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley and the slot canyons of Zion National Park, the slot canyons off of Sidewinder Canyon’s main canyon are made of composite rock composed of gravel-like debris that millions of years ago washed down from the Black Mountains above forming an alluvial fan which hardened into a kind of cement. Then subsequent floods began to create channels through this cement-like rock. So, as you pass through the slot canyons you are seeing cement-like vertical walls on either side. As you climb up vertical ledges you are using protruding rocks from the cement as stepping stones. Do take time to ensure the rock you are stepping on is anchored into the cement wall and not working itself loose!
All the slot canyons are branches off of the main Sidewinder Canyon. There are 3 major slot canyons and a host of minor slot canyons branching off the walls of Sidewinder’s main canyon. The three major slot canyons are on the right (South side) beginning within a half mile of the opening of Sidewinder Canyon and up to about the 2-mile point. In this adventure I explore every slot canyon opening on the right up to the 2-mile point – 6 openings in all. This first trip I did not explore the first opening on the left (North) side of Sidewinder Canyon nor did I explore slot canyon openings beyond the 2-mile point. I’ll save these for the next trip, which brings to mind the point that to entirely explore the furthest extent of every slot canyon in Sidewinder Canyon you may need to make more than one trip! 2-3 days or more might do it!
From Las Vegas take Hwy 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) toward Death Valley National Park. About 10 miles after summiting Daylight Pass, take the left split toward Furnace Creek Ranch. Continue to the “T” intersection with Hwy 190 and take a left. Pass Furnace Creek Ranch and in a couple miles at The Oasis in Death Valley turn right onto Badwater Road. About 15 miles past Badwater Basin turn left (East) onto an unmarked unpaved road. Continue about .5 miles on this road to a small parking area.
There is actually a small “use trail” branching off to the Southeast from the Sidewinder/Willow Canyon parking area into the opening of Sidewinder Canyon. Sidewinder Canyon is the first main canyon opening in the hills to the Southeast of the parking area. You’ll begin by skirting a long 15-20ft high vertical ridge to your left until it ends at the opening of Sidewinder Canyon. Then, take a sharp left and head East upward into the main canyon. See the video and slide show on this page to view how to get from the parking area to the entrance of Sidewinder Canyon.
1st Minor Slot: This first minor slot begins immediately as a narrow slot with vertical 50-75ft walls on either side. It looks as if many people have previously checked out this slot…possibly thinking it might be the well advertised First Major Slot or, like me, not wanting to miss a single slot in Sidewinder Canyon. All along the walls of this and all the other slot canyons off of Sidewinder Canyon there are frequent additional side branches. It would take days to explore them all. Some end in a dead end. Others will take you all the way to the original surface above the slots for some spectacular views of Death Valley and its surroundings. After a couple hundred feet the 1st Minor Slot ends in a 100ft vertical dry waterfall.
2nd Minor Slot: This one is to the left (North side) and promises to be pretty large, but I did not take it today. I hear that you can follow this slot all the way to the top of the canyon for a spectacular view of Death Valley. So it might be better placed on the Major Slot list!
3rd Minor Slot: This slot is to the right (South Side) of Sidewinder Canyon and opens up not too far from the 2nd Minor Slot on the left (North side). This slot narrows pretty quickly, but extends much further than the 1st Minor Slot. However, as with the first minor slot, this slot ends with a few vertical 75ft high dry waterfalls.
4th Minor Slot: I’ll call this “Wrong Slot Branch” for MajorSlot Canyon #1. When you enter the obvious wide opening off Sidewinder’s main canyon and into Major Slot Canyon #1 you’re faced with an immediate fork in the road. You can take the larger fork on the right which actually looks like the way to go. But this is the wrong fork if you want to go to Major Slot Canyon #1, which is the left fork. But why not…try out the “Wrong Slot Branch”. It’s not actually a slot canyon…too wide. And, it doesn’t go very far. However, at the end of the canyon there is an impressively massive 60-degree slab of cement stone that looks as if it had been professionally smoothed by a road crew. Its surface is perfectly flat and is graded more perfectly than many roads. If it weren’t angled at 60 degrees you could walk or drive up that slab. As it is, if you do attempt to ascend the 100 feet of slab to its summit and slip in the process, its surface, though perfectly flat, has the consistency of a cheese grater! As inviting as this opportunity seemed, I decided to pass!
To enter this slot, take the more obscure left fork in this side canyon. Remember, the right fork was Unofficial Slot #4 (above). The canyon immediately narrows and you find yourself faced with a cave-like opening under a boulder. You can squeeze through this opening pushing or pulling your separated back pack along. Or, you can actually climb to the right and above the cave-like opening with pack on back for a more generously large entrance.
Continue through a very narrow, winding passageway lighted by the dim shafts of light that manage to seep down through the narrow opening above. Eventually, this slot enters a section that is entirely dark and you will need to turn on your head lamp. Not too far ahead the dark chamber ends with a vertical wall straight ahead and a less vertical shaft to the left. I did not precede further on this day, but it looked as if a person that was into caving might enjoy going further. However, you will end up needing to climb some steep jagged walls in the process, and hope your light doesn’t fail!
While there is no real squeezing or caving in this long, dimly lit slot, it is just wide enough to allow a person to advance without turning sideways. There are a enough wider alcoves to allow people preceding in the opposite direction to pass…kind of like those one-lane two-way mountain roads that have occasional turnouts to allow cars traveling in the opposite direction to pass.
While caving is not the thing in this second slot, climbing over vertical ledges is the challenge. Most of the ledges are 3-5ft high and relatively easy to ascend. However, a few are 6-10ft high and these require a little more care and flexibility. In one case I lodged myself in a tight opening and had to work to move upward of downward. Had I lost my hold I would have remained in that vertical opening like a choke stone! Here’s a trick I saw another climber utilizing: He had his backpack on a long cord and raised or lowered it on the vertical ledges so he didn’t have to climb wearing the pack. I’ll bring a long cord next time! I turned around at an 8-9ft vertical barrier in the canyon.
This and Major Slot Canyon #3 continue upward to the upper surface above the slot canyons if you so desire. While I went very far in, I did not go to the absolute upper end of these slots. Next time!
For the most part this slot canyon is wider and lighter than the two previous major slots. It is also more user-friendly with less daunting vertical ledges to navigate. However, in a few places there is a thin film of dust on some smooth boulders making it hard to find a secure foot placement. I was careful and managed to keep my footing on the dusty spots. Some more vertical ledges appear further up the canyon. I did not encounter any ledges as challenging as in Major Slot Canyon #2 (above).
Sidewinder Canyon is a fun, interesting canyon and merits a second and possibly a third day of exploration. The variety of hiking, climbing and scrambling experiences in this canyon are hard to match anywhere else in Death Valley. And the views are truly spectacular. Highest ratings!!