I embarked a spontaneous road trip down to Death Valley National Park a couple of weeks ago and was completely taken aback by how much it had to offer. From historic ghost towns to unique geological significances, it took the cake for me as my favorite National Park. One of the most exciting adventures of the 2 day experience was actually our first activity, hiking Sidewinder Canyon.
Here’s Hiking Sidewinder Canyon in Death Valley:
The most convenient entrance into the park in relativity to Sidewinder Canyon is on the southeast side near Shoshone. Take CA 178 to Ashford Junction and the canyon is about a 20 minute drive (13 miles) north from there.
The other route to get to the Sidewinder Canyon is turning onto CA 178 off of CA 190 at Furnace Creek. Drive past the Badwater Basin and Sidewinder is another 23 minutes (15 miles) south of there.
Sidewinder Canyon will show up on Google Maps so, before you enter the park and lose all cell service, drop a pin at Sidewinder and let Maps do its job.
Coming around the bend from the south, just past mile marker 32 facing north, park on the side of the road.
The Trail Details
The Sidewinder Canyon Trail is a 4.3 mile gravel hike that explores some of the most incredible slot canyons. Expect to take anywhere from 3 to 4 hours as the trail could be considered physically demanding since it requires some climbing and squeezing into tight spaces. Sidewinder’s route is lightly trafficked and, honestly, I think that’s because this entire area of Death Valley primitively off the beaten path. In fact, multiple vehicles drove right past us while we were parked here and barely gave a second look as to what we might be exploring.
What to Bring
Hiking Sidewinder Canyon requires some crawling, squeezing and climbing so dress accordingly for that. Don’t forget the essentials for hiking like water, snacks and sunscreen, especially since you’re in the desolate hot temps of Death Valley.
There are some areas in the canyons that can become pretty dark, especially if you’re hiking in the early morning or evening. Special equipment like a headlamp or flashlight is recommended for the hike.
Finding the Trail
Not going to lie, finding the actual trail was pretty difficult since it’s not maintained or marked. After parking on the side of the road, look directly east and you’ll see the mountains span the horizon; the trailhead is actually where the eastern set of mountains meet the southern mountains. Walk through the rocky (an understatement) abyss towards the east for about a third of a mile, away from the car. While it feels like you’re going the wrong way, before long you can start to see footprints in the gravel and the ground becomes less rocky.
Beginning the Hike
There are essentially 3 different slot canyons to discover on this hike but other little tributaries exist too that call for exploration if you’re so inclined. From here at the mouth of the hike’s beginning, it’s about another 0.6 miles to the first slot canyon. It really doesn’t seem like much at first when trekking up this pathway but the combination of the soft ground and steady incline definitely takes a toll on the calves and thighs.
Finding the Slot
After 0.6 miles, the canyon seems to widen and, looking to the right, a large opening with rocks and boulders is where the entrance to slot #1 can be found. A small graveled pathway wrapping around a rocky platform leads the way to this part.
Looking against the back wall on the left side, a massive pile of boulders stacked on top of each other show a small creviced opening at the bottom. This is your entrance to slot #1.
Entering Slot #1
Entering the first canyon may take a little squeezing and wiggling. Trust me when I say I was just as skeptical that this was the right way to go but, after squeezing through the hole on the bottom left, I could tell I was on the right path.
Immediately after coming through that crevice, you’ll need to climb over a large boulder. Nudge your way through a 1.5 foot wide space that then opens up into slot #1.
Exploring Slot #1
Once that climbing and squeezing is completed, slot #1 is pretty easy to navigate through. The initial area opens up, showing the sky and displaying a colorful scheme of purplish red rock tipped by the yellow morning sunlight.
The total length of Slot #1 is only about 0.1 miles until the canyon walls close in and begin to block the sunlight. At this point, you’ll definitely need your headlamp or flashlight until you come to the back of a dark passageway.
Return to the main canyon via the same route.
Finding the Slot
After retuning to the main trailhead, take a right and head back up the canyon for about 0.1 miles. The more obvious visible entrance to the second slot canyon is on the wall to the right.
Entering Slot #2
Entering the second slot is definitely not as hard as the first as you’re able to walk right on in.
Exploring Slot #2
Slot #2 is just as, if not more, exciting than the first slot as it requires more climbing. This slot is also more in depth as it doesn’t have an official end, although most only hike the first 0.4 miles.
The pathway of the canyon beautifully esses around the walls, displaying the effects of historic flash flood’s geological processes.
The sunlight from the outside teasingly peeks through the cracks of the rock walls, only inches wide at some points.
The majority of people who hike this trail only explore for about a half mile, ending at the point where they’re faced with climbing 6 to 8 feet high over rugged boulders.
If you do decide to make the scramble like we did, it’s totally worth it.
The bright blue sky that appears once hiking further in to slot #2 is a welcoming sight after roaming through darkness for a bit. The canyon widens more after most of the climbing and, towards the point where we turned around, it displays stunning pinnacle formations.
So many areas exist back in this part of the canyon that have the ability to be explored. The little tributaries are extremely rocky though so, take precaution when climbing up on them.
Head back the same route and to the main part of the canyon to continue on for slot #3.
Finding Slot #3
After getting back to the main canyon, turn right and hike 1/4 of a mile finding the entrance to slot #3 on the right.
Exploring Slot #3
I think the formations of the rock walls and the slots back in this slot were the most spectacular. The exploration of this canyon requires more crawling and scrambling than the first two and at a longer distance at a quarter of a mile. There is no official end to slot #3, which is a good reason to keep it as the last slot you explore on your hike.
Death Valley Views
As you exit the canyon, take some time to breathe in those gorgeous views of the southern portion of Badwater Basin. The salt flats that span the ground which was once a lake stunning lay as a foothold to the mountains.
If you decide to be adventurous and climb up on the rocks, be sure to test their grounds before getting on top. As I was coming down from one edge of the wall, the ground crumbled underneath me and I had a pretty hard fall. All was good though, just some minor scrapes and cuts!
Quick-Info for Hiking the Sidewinder Canyon
Location: Death Valley National Park, California
Type of Trail: Out & Back. Foot Trail Only
Distance: 4.3 miles
Elevation: +1062 feet
Features: Scenic Views, Rugged Terrain, 3 Different Slot Canyons, Tight Spaces
More Info: Dogs NOT Permitted on trails in Death Valley. Make the hike earlier in the day to escape the heat and ensure there’s some light in the canyon. Bring a headlamp or flashlight. Be prepared to climb, squeeze and scramble.
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