Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Sidewinder Canyon

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The first hike of my Death Valley National Park wildflower trip was a canyon hike. It had been suggested by a ranger I talked to at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center earlier that morning and would feature slot canyons. As it turned out, I would learn several things about hiking in Death Valley, and I would see several more new wildflowers, though I didn’t really experience the slots.

One of the most important things about hiking in Death Valley is that, in many if not most of the canyons, there is no marked trail. Rather the trail should be obvious, since you are basically just following your way up the canyon as it climbs into the range of hills or mountains where it is located. A few of the most popular and visited canyons have signage at the trailhead, but others do not. I did have an information sheet about the hike, which was in Sidewinder Canyon, about 31 miles down Badwater Road and not far from Mormon Point.

As a result of the lack of way-finding aids and signage, as well as my inexperience, I initially hiked up the wrong canyon. Once I figured that out, I needed to return to the mouth of the incorrect canyon in order to enter the correct one. It was all part of the adventure of canyon hiking in Death Valley!

The GPS track shows an overview of the hike, which was about 3.3 miles long including the back-tracking. The trailhead was a small parking area less than ¼ mile from Badwater Road at the end of a short dirt road. The orange dot on the GPS track shows the location of the parking area.

GPS track

GPS track

The hike description said to walk south from the south end of the parking area up a large alluvial fan and into a shallow canyon. I initially entered the most obvious canyon, though it turned out not to be the correct one. As with other canyons at the edge of the valley, the canyon floor has a moderately steep slope. In fact, the first canyon had an average grade of nearly 18%, while Sidewinder’s grade was more like 10%. And, unlike any hike I’ve been on previously, the starting point was about 250 feet below sea level.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Near the upper portion of the alluvial fan, before entering the canyon, I found some caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calvifolia). The leaf shape is very easy to see in the picture.

photo of caltha-leaved phacelia

Caltha-leaved phacelia

About ¼ mile up the canyon I found what I think is desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra). The leaf shape certainly suggests this identification.

photo of desert holly, I think

Desert holly, I think

Nearby there were several desert five-spots (Eremalche rotundifolia), a delicate and beautiful flower. Note that the namesake spots are very prominent near the base of the petals.

photo of desert five-spot

Desert five-spot

After climbing nearly 1/2 mile the canyon was opening up and becoming shallower, while I was expecting to arrive at side canyons that were true slots: barely a few feet wide with up to 100 foot high, vertical walls. Thinking I might not be in the correct canyon, I walked over to my right where I found that I could see what I’ll call a true canyon with vertical walls – and other hikers. The floor was some 100 feet below. I was sure it was Sidewinder Canyon, and I was sure I would have to return to the mouth of the canyon I’d come up in order to enter it. So that’s what I did. By then I had essentially abandoned the idea of exploring all three of the slot canyons that were indicated on the information sheet, and I would simply explore a bit and see what I could find. As I returned to the canyon mouth I found that there was a nice view across the floor of Death Valley.

photo of view of Death Valley floor from the lower part of a canyon

View of Death Valley floor from the lower part of a canyon

Once I got to a place where I could get into Sidewinder Canyon I could see why I’d missed it in the first place: from the parking area you had to go past the obvious canyon, up a small rise, and around a small promontory to find the entrance. Sidewinder Canyon has well-defined vertical walls, a flat floor, and a more reasonable 10% grade. It was easy to see why hikers are cautioned not to enter canyons when there is any chance of rain: it would not take much precipitation to result in a flash flood within the canyon!

photo of Sidewinder Canyon

Sidewinder Canyon

I presume that the name for Sidewinder Canyon refers to the sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes), a rattlesnake species found in the southwestern deserts. I was very glad not to encounter any examples!

I continued up the canyon, looking for the side slot canyons mentioned in the information sheet. However, it was tricky to estimate my trail distance from the parking area due to my detour into the other canyon. Nearly a mile from the end of the detour I found another new flower: lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora). Note the distinctive leaves, and a flower that reminds me in some ways of monkeyflower.

photo of lesser mojavea

Lesser mojavea

In several places in the canyon I noticed plants that were not quite ready to bloom yet, and they were generally difficult to identify. However, this one seemed to be rock daisy (Perityle emoryi), with especially green leaves. I’d seen some earlier in the day with blossoms.

photo of rock daisy leaves

Rock daisy leaves

I explored a bit in a couple of small side canyons, one marked by a cairn. About 1 mile up Sidewinder I decided to return to my car and proceed to my next planned stop at Badwater Basin. On the return trip I came across an irregular mat of green plants a few feet across, containing a few different types of plant. The entire mat was dotted with very small yellow flowers only a few mm across. I zoomed in to get a better view, shown here. Either one type of plant is growing up through another, or the flowers are much smaller than the leaves of the plant. For now, this is unidentified – but I will note that there is little chance of a random introduced plant to survive in the harsh conditions of Death Valley, so it is probably a local species that I simply did not find in my library or on-line.

photo of small, unidentified yellow flowers

Small, unidentified yellow flowers

After I exited the canyon I took a different path down the slope of the alluvial fan to the parking area. Along the way I passed several scattered desert gold (Geraea canescens), also called desert sunflower. It was a colorful contrast to the relative lack of color in the canyon itself.

photo of desert gold

Desert gold

Not far from Sidewinder Canyon there was yet another field of desert gold extending from the valley floor right up to the base of the hill (here Smith Mountain, in the Black Mountains at the south end of the Amargosa Range).

photo of field of desert gold

Field of desert gold

I was planning to hike again in canyons over the next few days, so for now I continued up Badwater Road to the Badwater Basin for my next short hike of the day.

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