H ike up a desert canyon to explore multiple slot canyons.
|Total Distance: 4.6 miles out & back or up to 8.1 miles out & back with spurs||Elevation Gain: 1,651ft. or up to 3,646ft. (-234ft. to 1,113ft.)|
|Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous or up to Extremely Strenuous||0-5 Mile Difficulty: Very Strenuous or up to Extremely Strenuous|
|View Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0 stars||Author’s Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars|
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|Pets: No||Horses: No|
|Best Seasons: November-April||Special Permits: None|
|Water Availability: None||Overnight Options: Dispersed camping permitted after about 1.25 miles (1 mile from the Badwater Road)|
|Trailhead Amenities: None||Crowd Factor: Moderate to Crowded|
|Trailhead Access: 1.3|
Mile-by-Mile: Sidewinder Canyon Route
Note: Distances do not include exploring the side slot canyons. I’ve included the distances up the side canyons, but your distance may vary dependent on your desire to scramble dryfalls and time constraints. Mileages in parenthesis () are the cumulative distance for all slots.
0.0 Sidewinder Canyon Trailhead (-234ft.). Follow the trail generally south and then east up Sidewinder Canyon. (Be careful to get the trail heading south (so the Badwater Road is on your right) – the trail heading north is the one for Willow Canyon.) The path is crossing the outlet of the wash, so it’s mostly loose gravel. After about a half a mile, the route turns east into Sidewinder Canyon. (36.0650500°, -116.7450000°)
0.65 Slot 1 (108ft.). The first slot (known as Slot -2 or not mentioned in other publications) is a break in the east (left) canyon wall marked by boulders in the wash on the left. This is the only slot on the hike on the east side of the main Sidewinder Canyon. It can be explored for approximately 0.2 miles east and south to a dryfall. After desired exploration, continue up Sidewinder Canyon. (36.056974°, -116.743526°) Add 0.4 miles for exploring Slot 1.
0.7 (1.05) Slot 2 (111ft.). Turn right to the slot (also known as Slot -1 or often not mentioned in hiking guides). It’s not long or terribly exciting, but it’s still fun to explore. Return to the main Sidewinder Canyon and continue upcanyon. (36.0564833°, -116.7436000°) Add 0.3 miles for exploring Slot 2.
0.8 (1.45) Slot 3 (176ft.). Turn right into the slot (also known as Slot 0 or not mentioned in many guides). There are a few dryfalls to scramble (Class 3) as the slot winds 0.15 miles up into the hills. (When the slot very nearly reaches the top of the canyon, you can climb up the left (south) wall to scramble up on the hill for views down on Sidewinder Canyon and Death Valley.) Retrace your steps back to the main Sidewinder Canyon and continue upcanyon. (36.0552833°, -116.7424500°) Add 0.3 miles for exploring Slot 3.
1.0 (1.85) Slot 4 (259ft.). This is the first of the exciting slots (and it’s often called Slot 1 in hiking guides). Turn right to walk up into the side canyon; fairly quickly, the canyon splits right and left. There is little that’s exciting to the right, but it can be explored for 0.05 miles, if desired, up to a slanting dryfall. To the left, the route is blocked by a set of large chokestones. These are fairly easily negotiated by crawling under the stones on the left side. The passage is often dark (a flashlight is helpful but not required) and finally ends 0.3 miles from the canyon split in a very dark, small cathedral that feels a bit like a cave. Retrace your steps to the main Sidewinder Canyon and continue upcanyon. As you approach the place where the main Sidewinder Canyon obviously narrows, Slot 5 will become visible on the right. (36.053617°, -116.740640°) Add 0.8 miles to explore Slot 4.
1.1 (2.75) Slot 5 (313ft.). Slot 5 (usually called Slot 2) is another of the exciting slot canyons. After twisting upward for about 0.15 miles (approx. 36.051179, -116.737989), an arch appears to block the way upward. Actually, you can climb into the arch by following the social trail right, or you can bypass the arch by turning left. A few dryfalls (Class 3) slow progress beyond the arch; near the head of the canyon (0.4 miles from the mouth), the entire slot turns into a dryfall. Be sure to look up in this section for rock pinnacle formations on the wall of the canyon. (The head of the canyon can be scrambled (Class 3) with care, and a social trail accessed above the head of the canyon. Turning left on this social trail up to the top of the hill gives excellent views of Sidewinder Canyon, Telescope Peak, and Death Valley.) Return to the mouth of Slot 5 and continue upcanyon as the walls around the main Sidewinder Canyon close in for some nice narrows. There are several small cracks on the right (south) wall of the canyon before Slot 6. (36.052769°, -116.738950°) Add 0.8 miles for exploring Slot 5.
1.3 (3.9) Slot 6 (457ft.). Turn right to explore the slot (often called Slot 3 by hiking guides). There are two natural bridges near the beginning of the canyon, and the canyon walls tower, with several difficult obstacles (Class 3). The slot extends about 0.5 miles. Once you reach your desired turn around point, return to the main Sidewinder Canyon. Most people return to the parking area at this point. However, this guide continues up the main Sidewinder Canyon. The walls are generally close, though the true “slot” ends shortly after Slot 6, with a few fairly easy dryfalls to navigate (Class 2 or mild Class 3). A short distance before the end, the walls narrow significantly before opening back up. (36.051628°, -116.734867°) Add 1.0 mile for exploring Slot 6.
2.3 (5.9) Dryfall (1,140ft.). A steep pile of rocks creates an impassible dryfall that blocks forward progress. Nearby a slot (rarely explored) veers off on the left. Return down Sidewinder Canyon back down to the trailhead. (36.0449833°, -116.7248667°)
4.6 (8.1) Sidewinder Canyon Trailhead (-234ft.). (36.0650500°, -116.7450000°)
History & More
The rock in Sidewinder Canyon is mostly loose and crumbly (conglomerate rock), at least for the first 2 miles or so. This makes scrambling a bit more complicated. Watch your footing, wear good shoes, and don’t try anything you’re not comfortable with.
Sidewinder Canyon was a true family favorite when we visited. The slot canyons were just way too fun, and there were enough views, arches, rock formations, etc., to keep the older ones entertained.
At the beginning of the hike, you’re hiking a formation called an Alluvial Fan. This is the debris that has been washed down the canyon by flash floods in past years. It’s interesting to see the wide variety of rocks that get washed out of the Black Mountains.
Don’t forget to bring a flashlight or phone flashlight for exploring the darkest of the slots!
Download Trail Map
From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, drive south on CA-190E (a right turn if you’re coming out of the visitor center access road). After 1.3 miles, turn right onto the Badwater Road, following signs for Badwater. Drive 31.3 miles; a sign will indicate the Sidewinder Trailhead on the left (east). You want to park on the right (south) side of the parking area.
From Death Valley Junction, take CA-190 West 28.9 miles to the Badwater Road; turn left toward Badwater. After 31.3 miles; a sign will indicate the Sidewinder Trailhead on the left (east). You want to park on the right (south) side of the parking area.
From CA-127 north of Shoshone, turn onto the Jubilee Pass Road. Drive 24.9 miles, then take the paved road as it turns sharply north at the junction for the Harry Wade Road. Drive for another 14.5 miles on the Badwater Road to the Sidewinder Trailhead, on the right (east). You want to park on the right (south) side of the parking area. Note that there’s no sign from this side, but it’s quite soon after passing Mormon Point, which is signed.
The parking area is gravel, but it should be passable by low-clearance vehicles under most circumstances.
Camping in a canyon is discouraged due to the danger of flash floods.
Remember, it may be easier to climb up dryfalls than down them (or vice versa). Be sure you can climb in the other direction before climbing up or down a dryfall.
Camping is not allowed within one mile of a paved road, developed area, or dirt road that is closed to camping.
Camping is not permitted within 100 feet of a flowing stream, spring, or other natural body of open water.
No camping is permitted on the floor of Death Valley, within one mile of Darwin Falls and Greenwater Canyon, on the active/shifting sand dunes, and certain other canyons and backcountry areas.
Camping is also prohibited within one mile of the Ubehebe Lead Mine, Leadfield Mines, Keane Wonder Mill, and Skidoo Mill.
Camping is limited to 30 days per calendar year within the park.
Fires are permitted in NPS-provided fire grates or grills ONLY.
Leave No Trace Principles are enforced
Drones and model aircrafts are prohibited
Camping is permitted only in designated sites or in areas open to dispersed backcountry camping
All park rules and regulations
12 Month Pass: $55/Death Valley Annual Pass (valid at Death Valley National Park). $80/America the Beautiful Annual Pass (valid at all national park and federal fee areas). $20/Annual Senior Pass (62 years or older US citizens; valid at all national park and federal fee areas). Free/4th Grade Pass (Valid Sept. 1-August 31 of the child’s 4th Grade school year). Free/Military Pass (valid for all active military personel and their dependents with a CAC Card or DD Form 1173).
Lifetime Pass: $80/Lifetime Senior Pass (62 years or older US citizens; valid at all national park and federal fee areas). Free/Access Pass (available to all US citizens with perminent disabilities). Free/Access for Veterans and Gold Star Families Pass (valid for all military and veterans with a CAC card, Veteran HJealth Identification Card, Veteran ID Card, or veteran’s designation on state-issued drivers license or identification card.)
Exploring Sidewinder Canyon
A family favorite from our trip to Death Valley in 2020 was Sidewinder Canyon. There’s something just so fun about exploring multiple slot canyons and discovering arches, caves, rock formations, and so much more. Plus we got some great views of Badwater Flats. Granted, we probably explored more than most people would, but that made it all the more fun!
There are technically three slot canyons off of the main Sidewinder Canyon. However, if you actually explore all of the side canyons, there are a total of six slot canyons (or more, depending on how you want to count). I ended up exploring four of the six canyons plus I hiked all the way up to the end of the main Sidewinder Canyon. That took me all day.
I’d have loved to have also explored Side Canyon 6 (which, along with Side Canyons 4a and 5, is one of the more exciting slots). But daylight fades quickly in November, and given that it rained later, I was just as glad not to be in a canyon too late or while it was raining!
We started out early in the morning, climbing up the trail that ascends the alluvial fan outside of Sidewinder Canyon. The trailhead is actually for both Willow Canyon and Sidewinder Canyon, with the former trail striking north and the latter trail (the one we want right now) striking south. If you only have time for one of the two canyons, I highly recommend Sidewinder over Willow. In fact, even if you have time for both canyons, I recommend Sidewinder over Willow.
The trail up the alluvial fan is pebbly and steep but not too bad. It’s also very exposed. But looking back, the views down on Badwater Flats are incredible. The day I was hiking, Telescope Peak had its (I believe) first major snowfall for the year. So we played peek-a-boo with the peaks most of the day, but it was still beautiful.
At the top of the alluvial fan, the trail turns left (east) into Sidewinder Canyon. The walls rise up, and while the trail more or less disappears, there’s only one direction to go: up the canyon!
You’ll pass Slot 1 (the only slot on the left (north); sometimes called Slot -2) at about mile 0.6. I did not explore the first slot simply because I didn’t see that it existed! I hear that it’s not very exciting, but you can walk up it for about 0.2 miles if desired.
Slot 2 (sometimes called Slot-1) is about 0.05 miles up Sidewinder Canyon on the right (south) side. This was the first slot that I explored. It’s not very exciting, but you can walk up the slot for about 0.15 miles before coming to a dryfall that didn’t look exciting enough to try climbing.
Slot 3 (sometimes called Slot 0) is about a tenth of a mile up Sidewinder Canyon from Slot 2, and, similarly, it is about 0.15 miles long into the south canyon wall. We scrambled (Class 3) up beyond the dryfalls at the end and had a nice view over Badwater Flats and Sidewinder Canyon. Otherwise, it’s not terribly exciting.
Slot 4 (often called Slot 1) is the first of the exciting slot canyons, located about 0.2 miles upcanyon from Slot 3. There are actually two forks to Slot 4, which I’ll call Slot 4a and Slot 4b. Walk up Slot 4 for a hundred feet or so, and then the canyon splits. Honestly, Slot 4b (to the right (west)) isn’t worth scrambling up. You could probably do it in about 5 minutes, and except for a passable view and an interesting slanting dryfall, that’s it.
Slot 4a, on the other hand, is well worth checking out. At the split in Slot 4, turn left toward what looks like a massive, impassable choke stone. Some of my group tried climbing up the rocks, but the easiest route into the slot is by crawling (ducking, really) under the rocks on the left (east) side of the pile of rocks.
Slot 4a is very narrow, and the walls mostly close in overhead, creating a dark passageway. I almost wished I had a flashlight with me – but it’s pretty fun to do it in the dark. On my way back down, I found one of my group members using her phone flashlight. So there’s always that! The canyon becomes narrower and darker as it winds into the hillside for about 0.4 miles to end in a very dark grotto. So cool!
Slot 5 (often called Slot 2) is about a tenth of a mile up the main Sidewinder Canyon from Slot 4. It’s the second of the exciting slots, and it’s the one we explored most completely. Even the entrance looks exciting.
The first 0.15 miles are fairly easy without too many scrambles up dryfalls (there’s one that’s probably mild Class 3). At that point, there is a very cool arch in the slot canyon!
Nearby is the first of the difficult dryfalls. There is at least one if not two more dryfalls (difficult but not impossible to scramble; maybe about Class 3 with an occasional Class 4 move – all of us made it except for one member of my group who doesn’t like scrambling or heights or tight spaces). The canyon winds through the hill in narrow glory for about 0.4 miles total.
Beyond the 0.4 mark comes a challenge, but it’s rewarding if you have the time, energy, and know-how. A Class 3+ slope/dryfall offers a chance to exit the canyon and scramble up on top of the hillside. Be sure to look to the west (right) as you scramble – there are some very interesting rock formations.
Once on top of the hillside, a social trail leads left (east) up to a high point. Actually, a trail traverses the ridgeline, which is interesting. I’d have liked to have known where it went, but we didn’t have time to check it out. Instead, we walked up to the high point and took in the fantastic views of Death Valley, Badwater Flats, Sidewinder Canyon, the Black Mountains (which Sidewinder Canyon cuts into), and the Panamint Mountains (including Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park). This view is beautiful!
Back down in Sidewinder Canyon, the day was moving on. What we should have done was to sit down and eat lunch but, as you know we’d do, we decided to just keep eating snacks and continue up into the narrows of Sidewinder Canyon (to quote one of my group members, if you pack 20 snacks for a hike, you might as well eat 10 of them). The Narrows of Sidewinder canyon are quite visible from near Slot 5. They’re probably eight feet wide, but that’s a lot narrower than down near the mouth of Sidewinder Canyon.
About 0.2 miles beyond the mouth of Slot 5 is the mouth of Slot 6, on the right (south) side of the canyon, like most of the other slots in Sidewinder Canyon. I hesitated, then walked past it. We simply didn’t have time to explore Slot 6 (often called Slot 3). I regret that; I’ve seen photos online of an arch or two, lots of narrows, and fun dryfalls to scramble. It’s also about 0.5 miles long (maybe longer, depending on how much you like scrambling), and we definitely didn’t have time for that and to get all the way up to the top of Sidewinder Canyon.
Few people venture beyond Slot 6 up Sidewinder Canyon, which means the upper canyon has a wilder feel to it. The walls stay about 8ft. wide in most places, but the views are great, and there are a few small, smooth dryfalls to scramble (Class 2/Class 3) – but most of them are firm footing, unlike the dryfalls in the slots. Shortly before the end of Sidewinder Canyon, the walls narrow briefly – which is both pretty and fun.
Sidewinder Canyon doesn’t end in a sheer wall; it’s more like a giant tumble of rocks 2.3 miles from the parking area (not including any slots). You could scramble up the rocks, but daylight was fading quickly. There’s also a slot canyon on the left (east), but I know very little about it.
We retraced our steps back down Sidewinder Canyon and made it back to the parking area just as the first rain in months sprinkled down on Death Valley. The setting sun and the incoming storm made for some pretty interesting pictures. I’d totally do Sidewinder Canyon again if I was in the area… but preferably on a day when it wasn’t supposed to rain!