Sidewinder Ultimate is an extremely challenging hike into the upper portions of the Sidewinder Canyon slots which are inaccessible from below. Difficulties encountered on the hike include obtaining the southern ridge above Sidewinder Canyon, understanding the layout of the slots and various associated forks, and safely finding a way to enter the slots from above. Google Earth maps of the hiking route can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the sheep trail exit above Slot #1 are 36° 2.866'N, 116° 44.286'W. GPS coordinates for the sheep trail exit above Slot #3 are 36° 2.684'N, 116° 44.019'W.
Sidewinder Ultimate is the nickname that I gave to a concept hike that I first came up with a couple of years ago. The idea behind Sidewinder Ultimate is simple -- find a way to explore the Sidewinder slot canyons that are inaccessible from below by entering them from the top. My focus was on the three official Sidewinder Slots as identified on the NPS handout. (There are at least three other more minor slots which branch off of Sidewinder Canyon.) As a refresher for those familiar with the area, Slot #1 starts from below with an area of collapsed giant boulders which you have to climb under, around, and over. Sidewinder Slot #1 Bridge is then passed under high overhead as you enter into a very dark cavern which requires the use of a flashlight to see. The slot soon dead-ends at a major dry fall which is not safe to climb due to the crumbly rock. Slot #2 starts out with a very distinct entrance that curves over with the look of a cave. The narrows then go on for quite some distance before encountering Sidewinder Slot #2 Bridge. Slot #3 starts out fairly quickly with Sidewinder Slot #3 Bridge and the well-known minor natural bridge just beyond. But a short distance into the slot, there is a difficult spot with two giant fallen boulders wedged in the canyon that most people cannot climb past. (See the included Google Earth maps above to help clarify where all of these areas are.) With these facts in mind, Sidewinder Ultimate was my attempt to see the rest of Slots #1 and 3 by attaining the southern ridge high above Sidewinder Canyon and then dropping into the slots from above. I had no idea as to whether or not such an endeavor was possible, being that the hillside terrain all around is very steep and sometimes treacherous. But I was determined to find out. Especially since it seemed that a lot of spectacular narrows were likely missed above the major obstacles within Slots #1 and 3. The other thing that I wondered about was whether or not there were any major natural bridges left to discover in these upper portions of the Sidewinder Canyon Slots. Being that the three official slots already had major natural bridges confirmed in each one of them (along with a beautiful minor natural bridge in Slot #3), I was hoping that I might come across a major natural bridge that had been missed. This hike was set to be the centerpiece of my Fall 2016 Death Valley trip.
Upon arrival at the Sidewinder Canyon area, we decided to park out on the road rather than in the gravel parking lot. My friend Josh wasn't feeling that well, so he decided to sit out this hike while I headed out solo. I began by hiking up a short fan and entering into one of the minor canyons located west of the Sidewinder Canyon mouth. The short canyon was fairly nondescript with the exception of one tight bend. I attained the ridge and began climbing up toward the main Sidewinder-Mormon Ridge. Before reaching it, I found a way to crossover to the western ridgeline above Slot #1. This vantage point had outstanding views of both Slot #1's central narrows and upper Sidewinder Canyon. After hiking down and back up the ridgeline, I found only one gully with the potential to drop into Slot #1 at about the midpoint. Already, I could see some outstanding towering narrows which I was hoping to be able to check out far below me. The gully route down was not easy. In fact, it was quite challenging. Near the bottom, dry falls were encountered and it did not go through. However, I was able to crossover into two other gullies which eventually successfully dropped into the canyon. Because of the difficulty of this, I am not recommending this route. Instead, if someone wants to enter Slot #1 from above, it is best to do so near the area where I came out (note GPS coordinates above). It was definitely a thrilling moment to reach the canyon floor. And the narrows of middle and upper Slot #1 proved to be outstanding. I first headed down Slot #1 from the midpoint and eventually entered into the top portion of the cavern which is usually entered from below. The cavern went pitch black almost immediately, so I took out my flashlight. A short distance in, I was stunned to discover a major natural bridge crossing over the canyon from one side to the other just above my head. The natural bridge was difficult to photograph because of terrible lighting conditions. Beyond the natural bridge, the slot eventually dead-ended at the top of the major dry fall which stops hikers from below. Upon hiking back out of the cavern, I took some time to reflect on the discovery of another major natural bridge in Death Valley. Cavern Bridge was an appropriate name, I thought, in view of the bridge being located in a large dark cavern within the slot. But how did Cavern Bridge stay hidden for so long despite being in Sidewinder Canyon, which is likely hiked every single day by park visitors? It is because of the location and setting. First, Cavern Bridge cannot be reached or even seen by hikers from below. It would be mandatory to enter Slot #1 from above to reach the location. Second, the cavern is pitch black inside, which means that even if a hiker or canyoneer had decided to explore from above, it would be easy for that person to miss the natural bridge. If that hiker had a flashlight, the bridge could still be missed because of the simple fact that somebody might not be looking for a bridge or even pay much attention if passing under one. So, in summary, a hiker or canyoneer would have to (1) enter the slot from above, (2) have a flashlight, and (3) be looking for or know how to identify a significant natural bridge. The rest of upper Slot #1 had some great narrows, as you will see in the included photographs. I found a much easier way to climb out of the slot at the top left fork. I then attained the Sidewinder-Mormon Ridge and followed that to the southeast. There were nice views into upper Slot #2 but I chose not to explore it at this time. Once above Slot #3, I dropped into a wash and followed it down into the narrow canyon. There was lots to see in upper and middle Slot #3 -- outstanding narrows, mazes of forks, interesting formations, overhead wedged boulders of immense size, and more darkened areas. Eventually, I came to the two boulders which block entry and exit into lower Slot #3. I managed to climb over these and reach Sidewinder Canyon, which I followed back down to our parking spot. Cavern Bridge is the fourth major natural bridge that I have discovered (or co-discovered with others) in Death Valley. For additional information, be sure to check out our Death Valley's Natural Bridges special database page. My hike took place on November 24, 2016.
This hike contains sections of climbing, exposed bypasses and/or high dry falls and may require safety ropes and equipment in order to complete the entire hike. Those without the proper training, experience, and safety gear should not attempt to enter the Sidewinder Slots from above but only view them from the sheep trail along the main ridge.
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
TRIP REPORT FORMAT