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Sidewinder Canyon Route
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park
Sidewinder Canyon
 
Sidewinder Canyon
Starting into the main Sidewinder Canyon (view E).

Overview

This is a moderately strenuous hike up a steep gravel wash to three amazingly narrow slot canyons in the wall of the main canyon deep within the Death Valley Wilderness Area. The main wash cut down through an old alluvial fan that long ago solidified to form conglomerate rock. On the south side of the main canyon, several narrow slot-canyons cut back into the wall of the main canyon. At least three of these slot canyons are narrow, winding, deep, dark, and fairly long, and in one case, you need a flashlight because it is so deep and dark. Another slot canyon, which is not deep or dark, provides an express route to the top of the cliffs where you can get a good overview of the area. Note that Slot#3 is now blocked: see below.

Link to Route Map.

sidewinder canyon
Hiking in the broad gravel wash below the slots (view northwest towards Death Valley and the Panamint Range).

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...the hike up the main canyon is pretty safe, but stay out of the area if it is raining or threatens to rain because of flash flood dangers. There are pour-overs in each of the slot canyons, most of which can be climbed easily or scrambled over (2nd- or 3rd-class climbing). However, pour-overs in two of the canyons are at least a 4th-class (which is to say, fairly difficult and somewhat dangerous). The rock is cobbly conglomerate with lots of handholds, but it is water-polished and slick, plus it is covered with dust and gravel, so there is a greater than usual risk of falling. Also, the handholds tend to break off. It would be very difficult to rescue an injured hiker from the slots, so consider carefully your circumstances before climbing any pour-overs. Plus, the pour-overs always look higher and steeper from the top, and climbing down is always harder than climbing up, especially in the dark.

sidewinder canyon
Entrance to Slot#1 (view S from the main canyon).

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, this hike is fairly long and remote, so be sure to bring the 10 Essentials.

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located in Death Valley National Park, about 3.5 hours northwest of Las Vegas.

sidewinder canyon
Entrance to Slot#1 (yes, the hole) (view south).

From town, drive out to Death Valley. From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center (Table 1, Site 712), drive south on Highway 190 for about 1.25 miles to the Badwater (Highway 178) turnoff (Site 741). Turn south (right) towards Badwater, and drive for about 31.2 miles to a well-graded dirt road on the east (left) side of the road (Site 773). There are no signs here, but this is 14.8 miles (and the first turnoff) south of Badwater (Site 714). There is a gravel pit at the end of the dirt road, which you can see from the pavement. Turn east (left) towards the mountains and drive for 0.3 miles to the gravel pit. Park on the south end of the paved area (Site 774), but don't block the gravel piles in case the Park Service road crew needs to get at them. Park here; this is the trailhead.

This is also the trailhead for Willow Canyon, so if you've come this far, you might want to visit Willow Canyon too.

Sidewinder Canyon
Wide spot inside Slot#1.

The Hike

From the trailhead (Table 2, Waypoint 1), hike south and out of the gravel pit, working up the hillside towards the top of the alluvial fan (Wpt. 2) where the main wash comes out of Sidewinder Canyon (about 0.26 miles out). The alluvial fan is composed of fairly small cobbles and the walking is firm and fairly easy. Along here, the vegetation is sparse and dominated by creosote bush and desert holly, plus few other species (emphasis on the few).

At the mouth of the canyon, turn east and hike up the fairly steep, loose gravel wash. Initially, the wash is about 100 yards wide with 30- to 40-ft-high sidewalls. The canyon narrows, then widens again, and the walls get higher and lower as you hike up the canyon. Watch the sides of the canyon for evidence of ancient flash floods and earthquake faults.

sidewinder canyon
The main canyon narrows abruptly just above the entrance to Slot#2 (view southeast).

Hike up the wash for about 0.62 miles to a large side canyon that comes in from the south (Wpt. 3). At this point, you are about 0.9 miles from the trailhead and you can look up the main canyon to see it narrowing abruptly about 0.11 miles ahead. Watch for bighorn sheep, or at least their scat, along here.

Although it might not be what you are expecting, this is the turnoff to the first slot canyon (Slot#1). From the main wash, look up the side canyon. You can see that the side canyon runs south, then curves to the right and goes out of sight. At the back of the curve, there is a little box side-canyon with some broken boulders along the back wall; it looks like cracks in the wall that are full of big boulders. Head for the boulders (Wpt. 4); this is the entrance to Slot#1.

sidewinder canyon
Entrance to Slot#2 (view southeast).

At the back of the little box canyon, crawl up through holes around the boulders to get into Slot#1. This slot canyon is deep and dark, and a flashlight is helpful (although not essential). There is one spot where you walk into an inky-black passageway, abruptly encounter a pour-over, and instinctively reach for your flashlight. It takes about 10 minutes to scramble back to a 10- to 12-ft pour-over. This pour-over is passable (minimal 5th-class climbing) just to the right of a chute (not on the far right), but remember that if you fall and break an ankle, it is dark and help is a long ways off. Above this pour-over, the canyon winds around a few bends to yet another, even more difficult-looking section where (alone and in the dark) I turned around. In all of the slot canyons, be sure to look up to see what is above your head. When finished exploring, head back down to the main wash.

Sidewinder Canyon
Inside Slot#2.
Back in the main canyon, continue up the wash for about 0.11 miles to where the main canyon abruptly narrows from about 50-yards wide to about 7-yards wide. The entrance to Slot#2 (Wpt. 5) is on the south wall, about 30 yards back from the mouth of the narrows, and is easy to see from the main wash.
sidewinder canyon
Entrance to Slot#3. Photo taken with my back against the other side of the canyon (view south).

Head up into Slot#2. This canyon starts out deep and narrow, then it opens up and gets shallower with a bunch eerie eroded hoodoos in the alluvial deposits; then it gets deep and narrow again. At the top of the wide section, there is an 8-ft pour-over that can be passed on the right. Above that, there are 6 more little pour-overs and several scramble-up before a 10-to 12-foot pour-over (capped by a big chockstone) blocks progress (probably passable, but a rope might be nice for the downclimb). This pour-over is about 20 minutes from the main wash. When finished exploring, hike back down to the main wash. Bighorn sheep use the lower end of this canyon.

Back in the main canyon, which gets quite narrow, continue up the wash for about 0.26 miles to the entrance to Slot#3 (Wpt. 6), an 8-foot-wide slot on the south wall. If you get to a big overhanging washout cave on the south side of the canyon, you've gone too far.

Sidewinder Canyon
Enormous boulder inside Slot#3.

Hike up into Slot#3. There is a boulder about 30 feet in, and after that, it gets slotty. A few feet up the slot, there is a pretty little arch, then another arch just beyond the first, and then an enormous boulder to crawl under.

However, Alison provides an April 2010 update: Sadly, Slot#3 is no longer so easy. You can't crawl under the boulder any more. Apparently there were a couple of flash floods in Jan/Feb 2010, and more sediment has settled at the base of the rock. My friend and I are pretty tiny (she weighs less than 100 pounds), and there was no way we could crawl under the boulder on either the left or right side without some significant scratches and danger. So, next time consider taking a shovel to dig under the boulder or a rope to go over the top. [Ed.--the NPS might frown on using a shovel]

sidewinder canyon
Some parts of the slot canyons are wide and well lighted, but they don't stay that way.

If you are quiet in here, you can hear the echo of your footsteps. About 15 minutes into the slot canyon, you emerge through a slot into a wider canyon. Continuing up the wider canyon, you climb above the alluvium and into the metamorphic parent material with interesting layered rocks at the interface of the two. Eventually, about 30 minutes out, progress is blocked by a 30-foot pour-over in the metamorphic parent material. When finished exploring, hike back down to the main wash. This canyon is shallower and wider on average than Slot#2, but it is technically more difficult with more boulders, more pour-overs, and taller pour-overs to climb over. On the way down, when you get to the edge of the taller pour-overs and look down with your dim flashlight, it looks like a long ways down. Bighorn sheep use the upper end of this canyon.

sidewinder canyon
Some parts of the slot canyons are wide and well lighted, but they don't stay that way (is there an echo in here?).

If you are inclined, continue up the canyon for an hour or so until the canyon opens up into the cliffs. About 10-15 minutes up the main canyon past Slot#3, you break out of the alluvial material and get into the metamorphic parent material. Farther up, the canyon widens, bends off to the south, and narrows again. Up there, the main canyon is narrow with boulder-choked pour-overs. After climbing a bunch of water-polished pour-overs in the colorful metamorphic rock, the canyon runs out into cliffs (Wpt. 7). You can keep going, the sheep do, but this seemed like good place for me to stop.

Sidewinder Canyon
Boulder stuck high in narrow slot (view straight up).

From wherever you stop, follow your footprints back down the main canyon to the trailhead. On the way down, you might investigate some of the other side canyons. In particular, there is a slot downstream from Slot#1 that is relatively shallow and wide, but it is steep, has several interesting pour-overs, and provides an express route to the top of the cliffs and a great overview of the surrounding landscape (including Slot#1, Slot#2, and the main wash). Look for the entrance to this slot (Wpt. 8) about 250 yards below the entrance to Slot#1.

Sidewinder Canyon
Trailhead parking (view S)
Sidewinder Canyon
Trailhead (view S)

 
Table 1. Highway Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Highway GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Site # Location Latitude (N) Longitude (W) Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Verified
0712 Furnace Creek Visitor Center 36.46159 116.86574 512030 4034954 -186 Yes
0714 Badwater Parking 36.22981 116.76638 520995 4009262 -280 Yes
0741 Hwy 190 at Badwater Rd 36.44841 116.85192 513271 4033494 4 Yes-2
0773 Hwy 178 at Sidewinder Canyon Rd 36.06763 116.74712 522773 3991279 -253 Yes
0774 Sidewinder Canyon Parking 36.06491 116.74390 523063 3990978 -240 Yes

Table 2. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27, UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Verified
01 Sidewinder trailhead 523064 3990978 -240 Yes
02 Mouth of the canyon 522928 3990578 -114 GPS
03 Slot downstream from Slot#1 523272 3989904 310 GPS
04 Entrance to Slot#1 523439 3989735 318 GPS
05 Entrance to Slot#2 523598 3989650 295 GPS
06 Entrance to Slot#3 523969 3989501 403 GPS
07 Top of the canyon 524838 3988693 807 GPS

 
Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
Thanks for coming to visit!
© 2014 Jim Boone; Last updated 140424

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