Later on Sunday morning, after our Minietta Mine exploration, we headed out of Panamint Valley and into Death Valley. Our goal was to visit some of the lesser known canyons in the park, and we focused on two of them in the Amargosa range accessed via different points along the Badwater Road.
Our first stop was Desolation Canyon, accessed from an unsigned gravel road a short distance south of the popular Golden Canyon. Golden is on the standard park map and popular with the crowds; we observed a busy parking lot as we drove by. Desolation used to be more accessible by vehicle but the floods of 2004 washed out the second half of the road. Now it’s a short cross-country hike to reach the mouth of the canyon.
Desolation is also sometimes called “Bantha Canyon” since it is where some of the Bantha scenes were filmed in the original Star Wars. I didn’t know this when we were there and I remember commenting to David that I expected to run into R2D2 rolling along around any corner. A bit of research revealed I wasn’t too far off.
The canyon is named Desolation due to the lack of plant life and the hard mud walls. In reality, this area is likely very active, changing with each season’s rainfall. Erosion from wind and water was evident and practically happening before our eyes. This makes it difficult for plants to establish roots and thus the muddy, rocky terrain of Desolation Canyon.
Desolation isn’t a very long canyon and has a few short scrambles. I had to put my DSLR camera in my pack for a couple of them since my hands were needed but there was nothing insurmountable. It has some beautiful color and if you enjoy geology there is a lot of activity to observe. While not as showy as a canyon like Golden or Mosaic, I highly recommend this short stop if you enjoy wandering quiet canyons without the din of hundreds of tourists.
Sidewinder is a bit more remote than Desolation and after spending a couple of hours there I plan on going back for an entire day. The main canyon of Sidewinder is nice but not terribly unique, however it has several slot canyons branching off of it that are a lot of fun to explore.
After about a mile of uphill hiking into the mouth of the wide Sidewinder Canyon, side canyons start to connect. The first slot is not obvious and requires a bit of a squeeze and climb through a pile of boulders. Once on the other side, it only takes a few moments to be so deep in a slot canyon that all of the overhead sunlight is blocked. Bring your headlamps for this one!
We would explore a side canyon and then head back to the main canyon. Working our way up, we only had time to explore three of the side slots before losing the sun (I hate those early winter sunsets!) This is a canyon that could easily take up a full day, especially if you want to take time to explore, photograph, and enjoy your visit.
If You Go
I’d recommend either of these canyons if you’re looking for an out-of-the-way place to get away from the crowds in Death Valley and a bit of adventure. Neither is very appropriate for children – Desolation has some scrambles and the approach to the interesting slots in Sidewinder would be a bit boring and tiresome (in addition to the difficult access to some of the slots).
Desolation Access: The access road for Desolation Canyon has a small ‘no camping’ sign and dead ends about a half mile from pavement. Leave your car there and walk to Desolation. Note that Desolation is the canyon on the LEFT of the small hill beyond the dead end – contrary to some of the topo maps (others have it labeled properly).
Sidewinder Access: When heading south on Badwater Road, there is a pullout and gravel pile on the left hand side just before Mormon Point. Pull out there and park. Follow a use trail toward the wall in front of you, then *around* it – the GPS track below should help significantly. Sidewinder starts off wide and is not visible from the parking.