Sidewinder and Willow Canyons run next to each other on the west side of the Black Mountains about 30 miles (48 km) south of Furnace Creek. The hike to either starts from a minimally signed gravel lot just off the Bad Water Road. We’d hiked to the waterfall (which was running!) in Willow Canyon in 2017 and had planned to hike the slot side canyons in Sidewinder that same day.
On that day, our car was the only one in the parking lot when we left for Willow. When we got back not too much later, the lot was near to full and lines of people were heading for Sidewinder. We decided to hike it later. We didn’t appreciate at that moment just how much “later” later would prove to be. So Sidewinder became (finally) Adventure #2 for this year’s trip to Death Valley.
We got a reasonably early start but were still not the first car at the trailhead. Then two more pulled in as we putting on our day packs. We feared hoards. But those failed to materialize and we ended-up sharing a large canyon with maybe six other people. Miracles!
Sidewinder’s lower main canyon features narrows and runs easily for about 2 miles (3.2 km) to a small dry waterfall. Past here, the upper canyon rapidly becomes “difficult” and rough. The slots are in six side canyons eroded into the fanglomerate walls of the lower main canyon.
We hiked the main canyon up to the dry waterfall, then doubled back to explore the highest (eastern-most) and next highest slot canyons. If we’d wanted to, we could easily have spent all day exploring all the slots to their fullest extents. But just a taste of slot world was fine for today. We were glad, however, not to have to explore these sometimes very narrow slots with hoards of other people!
After about a 2 mile (3.2 km) climb up the main canyon, we came to the dry waterfall – which is easy to climb around on the left. I did that, explored a little farther up-canyon, and then we decided to head down and explore some slot canyons.
The Park Service’s hiking guide shows only three side slot canyons, all in the south wall of the main canyon. Digonnet’s Death Valley Hiking Guide lists six, including one in the main canyon’s north wall. There are no signs or numbers here in the field (but there are several rock cairns), so we turned south into the first obvious slot we encountered – which is either number 3 or 6 depending on who’s counting. Regardless, these are true slots – very narrow, very dark, and NOT for the claustrophobic. Digonnet calls them “tenebrous” (shut off from the light, dark, murky) – an old 15th Century word that fits their confining gloominess perfectly. The highlight of this slot are the two natural bridges (or arches) we had to pass through. Much fun!
We went out to the main canyon and down it to where another large slot emerged from the south wall. Here we ran into a group of four and a single runner(?) coming out of the slot – again our timing was excellent. They all said it was amazing, so we plunged into the tenebrous void.
This was another short hike (5.2 miles (8.3 km) with about 1,000 feet (3.5 m) of gain up the main canyon) but one to some astounding sights. The vertical walls of the main canyon’s narrows are awesome enough but the deep, narrow slot canyons, with their natural bridges, are over the top (unless, of course, you’re claustrophobic). Sidewinder Canyon proved well worth the four year delay in our getting to see it. 😁 Later, celebratory libations ensued at the Last Kind Words Saloon at Furnace Creek.