Prior to carrying out this hike, I was able to think of at least sixteen different days which I have spent hiking in the Owlshead Mountains. While they were all enjoyable, none of those days even came close to comparing with the excitement over the discoveries which we made on this hike. As most people are aware, the Owlshead Mountains contain completely unique scenery in comparison to the rest of Death Valley. The mountains, canyons, and rocks of the Owlsheads are mostly decomposed granite. Decomposed granite lends itself naturally to the formation of massive car-sized and house-sized boulders. Admiring these huge boulders of various shapes and sizes always proves to be one of the hiking highlights while passing through the canyons in the range. In contrast, slot canyons do not naturally form very well in decomposed granite. The best known slot canyons in the range prior to this trip were Wingate Slot Canyon and Wingate Slot 2 and Slot 3, which my hiking group discovered in November of 2014 in the Wingate Wash area. In addition, there are the smaller decomposed granite slots which we call The Passage and Owlshead Slot, which are a couple of areas we had found on previous hikes. In late 2014, I spent some time studying up-close satellite imagery of the Owlshead Mountains in an effort to locate more slot canyons. While doing this, I came across three minor canyons which were located close by the mouth of the major canyon that we call Great Dry Fall Canyon. (The reason for so many informal canyon names within the range is that there are only five officially-named canyons. Everything else has no recognized designation.) These three minor canyons appeared to have some outstanding narrows and were saved as a future potential hiking destination. When our January 2016 trip rolled around, we finally decided to carry out this hike. Hiking in our group was myself, Tobin, and Charlie (our friend from Death Valley NPS). There are three potential parking spots along the Harry Wade Road in order to take this hike. The three parking spots are 1.6 miles southwest of the Amargosa River crossing (at the Sand Canyon parking area), at the actual river crossing location, or 1.5 miles north of the river crossing. The last option is probably the best, and it is the one that we used as it allows you to park due east of the slots and hike toward them with minimal drainage crossings. The GPS coordinates of the spot where we parked can be found above in the overview.
Our first target was Smoke Tree Slot #1. We had our GPS with coordinates saved for all three slots as well as satellite imagery printouts. We began by hiking across a wide flat area for the first 1 3/4 miles. This area contained cracked mud, soft ground, a few channel crossings, and occasional military shells. After the final channel crossing, the wide fan made up of decomposed granite rocks is reached and there is an uphill incline for the next 1 3/4 miles. As I've said in previous reports, the eastern Owlshead Mountains contains the best hiking terrain in the park, so the hiking was easy. Upon reaching ST Slot #1 (Smoke Tree Slot #1), we explored a few of the side canyons around the targeted area. We then turned into the main area we were interested in. The canyon walls ahead of us began to close in and frame up in a way that looked really impressive. As we headed into the narrows, we looked off to our right and saw what appeared to be an interesting dry fall pouring over the canyon wall. Heading over closer to explore, we were shocked to see that it wasn't a dry fall but the beginning of a towering slot canyon. We dropped our packs and began exploring the unexpected slot. It was quite amazing and it just kept going. Each bend in the slot revealed even more outstanding slot scenery. The walls were made of a rock type that we hadn't seen in a Death Valley canyon before. It almost seemed like tightly packed, very fine pieces of decomposed granite mixed with something that caused it to harden and become solid. To summarize, we were all awestruck to be walking through such a fantastic slot canyon with colossal walls on a scale that had always seemed impossible to find or exist in the Owlshead Mountains. But there we were, actually walking through such a beautiful and magnificent place. Charlie pointed out that the slot scenery rivaled the best of Sidewinder Canyon. Tobin agreed that we had just experienced our trip highlight. And I expressed that this was one of the most important discoveries ever made in the Owlshead Mountains. After exiting the slot, we continued up the main canyon (referred to as ST Slot #1) until we reached a major dry fall at the end of the narrows. We then backtracked, attained the ridge, and dropped into the upper canyon above the dry fall. After that, we began crossing over toward ST Slot #2, which was located a little less than 1/2 mile to the south. We passed by some interesting caves on the way over to it. And that is where this trip report comes to an end. Because we found so much beauty during this hike within each of the Smoke Tree Slots, coverage of our hike had to be divided into two separate reports. This first report fully covers Smoke Tree Slot #1 and the surrounding area. The next report continues where this one left off, as we continued on and explored Smoke Tree Slots #2 and #3. And it is only appropriate that ST Slot #1 be given its own report with the 80 plus included photographs. That's because ST Slot #1 has now become my personal favorite slot canyon in the entire park. After you see the full set of photographs, I'm sure that you, too, will be impressed with the great beauty on display and may even wish to visit this dramatic area. If you are wondering why we named this series of three narrow canyons the Smoke Tree Slots, it is because Smoke Trees can be found in the washes of all of them. A hiker named Ken wrote to me in Dec 2018 and said: "Just wanted to let you know how amazing your discovery of Smoke Tree Slots is. I've been hiking in DV for about 22 years now (but still haven't covered nearly as much ground as you) and I think this hike is the quintessential DV hike. 3 miles wandering across the valley floor apparently walking towards nothing of interest and then multiple secrets revealed in short order!" To continue reading part 2 of this report, follow the link on the main page to Smoke Tree Slots #2-3. Our hike took place on January 4, 2016.