In November 2016, I made my first trip to Death Valley National Park. While there, I visited many of the most famous sites in the park. After visiting Zabriskie Point at sundown, I camped at the Furnace Creek Campground for several nights. At the Furness Creek Visitors Center, I purchased a large format book, titled “Death Valley – Hottest Place on Earth”, by author Roger Naylor.
After returning home, I read that book from cover to cover, looking for new places to visit on subsequent trips. Although there are too many fascinating places to chronicle here, one place in particular struck my fancy. Touted as the only legitimate four-wheel drive road in Death Valley National Park, that place is Titus Canyon.
In May 2017, I bought the perfect vehicle to take on the dirt, gravel and bare rock surfaces that comprise the twenty-eight mile Titus Canyon Road. That vehicle is a Nissan Titan XD, lifted six-inches and powered by a Cummins Turbo-Diesel engine. In December 2017, I camped again at Furnace Creek Campground and made a daytrip to Titus Canyon.
To reach the start of the one-way Titus Canyon Road, I first drove eleven miles north on California 190. At the Aptly named Beatty Junction, I turned right on Beatty Road, which is a shortcut to Daylight Pass and to Beatty, Nevada, beyond. After enjoying the multivarious geography of Daylight Pass, I crossed the Nevada State Line, where the highway designation is Nevada 374. That section, from Beatty Junction to the turn-off at Titus Canyon Road was about twenty-three miles.
By the time I achieved the summit at Daylight Pass, daylight itself appeared to be in short supply. I elected to skip the extra four-mile trip to Beatty, and the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite. About four miles shy of Beatty; I almost overshot the signed turnoff for Titus Canyon. After turning around, I headed west on the one-way Titus Canyon Road. At first, the landscape of the surrounding Amargosa Valley consisted mostly of sagebrush. If you go this way, the initial stretch of gravel road will rattle your bones like one monotonous washboard.
After the mind-numbing washboard section, a sweeping turn to the south marks the beginning of your ascent. There, at one of the few wide spots in the road, I stopped to talk with three adventure motorcyclists that had recently passed me on the washboard section. With the suspension systems on their bikes pressed to the limit by the terrain, they were already feeling the stress of Titus Canyon Road. After an amiable conversation, the three riders traveled on ahead of me.
During that stop, I discovered that I had dropped my mobile telephone somewhere along the way. Unable to find it, I began to fear that it had flipped out of my truck near the beginning of the road. Since I have a Bluetooth hookup for the phone in my truck, I decided to call home, using the voice-activated system. To my amazement, there was cell phone coverage in that remote location. I spoke with Carrie McCoy, telling her that at least I knew the phone was in the truck.
As we spoke, I noticed the sun continuing its winter slink toward the horizon. In deep ravines, such as Titus Canyon, the visible sun can set quite early. Not wanting to complete my trip in the dark, I abandoned my phone-search and traveled on. Without access to the camera on my phone, I had only my Sony A6000 camera, with its telephoto lens attached. The road was too dusty to change lenses, so I eschewed any close-ups of nearby rock formations, opting instead for a longer, narrower perspective.
If you venture on, you will encounter an ill-defined area called Titanothere Canyon. The name Titanothere Canyon derives from the 1933 discovery there of a massive fossil skull. It was of a long extinct hooved animal, dating back to the Oligocene Period, over 32 million years ago. If the ancient Titanothere had hooves, did it share any other characteristics with early mammalian species? Perusing online images of its skull, you will see aspects that evoke a lizard, a wild boar or a camel, and even a dash of rhinoceros.
Regardless of its genetic heritage, the top of a rocky pass, eroded into impossibly steep slopes seemed an unusual place to find a hooved animal. Although camels are the kings of sandy desert travel, they could not have negotiated the unforgiving terrain of what is now Titanothere Canyon. Something big must have changes since those namesake beasts had roamed here. In the area, igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks are jumbled and tumbled all around. A series of epic geological uplifts had transformed this place in less than 35 million years. In geologic terms, just a blink of the eye separates us in time from the last Titanothere.
Back on the road, the switchbacks are numerous, the terrain is steep and corners are tight. In some places, you cannot see where your wheels will land, so most drivers hug the inside radius of the turns. As a result, there are deep ruts cut along the inner track of some corners. If your vehicle’s suspension survives the first unexpected hit, it is prudent to slow to a crawl on the many gouged-out turns to follow.
According to most publications and the Death Valley Visitor’s Center, any “high-clearance vehicle” should be able to negotiate the Titus Canyon Road. What they do not tell you is that this can be a grueling trip for a novice driver or if you are in a marginal vehicle. Authorities should designate this as a “Rough Road”, with a strong suggestion toward four-wheel drive capability. Because of both weathering and its popularity, the Titanothere Canyon section of the road is rapidly deteriorating. If your vehicle is questionable, I suggest renting a Jeep Wrangler four-wheel drive vehicle in Death Valley. This road begs for a “locked and loaded” Jeep Wrangler, and nothing less.
About thirteen miles into the drive, within Titanothere Canyon, sweeping views and steep drop-offs will vie for the driver’s attention. If a drop-off wins, you and your passengers will die, so keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes upon the road and slow down. If you survive the switchbacks of Titanothere Canyon, your reward will be in the cresting the summit at Red Pass. The first-time visitor is encouraged to stop and look back at the perilous climb just completed. You might ask yourself, “If that was the first half of the road, what more could it possibly have to offer”?
Then, if you turn and look toward where your wheels are about to take you, you will encounter an astounding view. On my visit, I stood agape as the afternoon sun illuminated a landscape that fell away toward a darkening canyon. Looking down, I could see something flickering on the dirt road, far below. After a few moments, I realized that the tiny objects attracting my attention were the three motorcycle riders I had met earlier, near the beginning of the road. The Robert Frost inside me, blurted out, “I have miles to go before I sleep”.
The more famous Titus Canyon (to follow) has an equally ominous history. The name honors Morris Titus, who, in 1906, left nearby Rhyolite with a prospecting party. When water ran short, Titus struck out on his own to find more, but never returned to the party. It is an historical tale repeated anew several times each year in Death Valley National Park.
The usual scenario includes a solo hiker taking off for a jaunt in the desert. Water soon runs out and the hiker tries to make it back to civilization before succumbing to heat and dehydration. Sometimes the hiker lives to tell the tale, but many others rapidly succumb, to be found as buzzard bait by a later search party. The lesson is to never hike alone, avoid the midday sun and take more water than you could ever need. Consider wearing a hydration pack, since a small bottle of water is insufficient.
While humming the lyrics to the rock group America’s, “I went through the desert on a horse with no name”, I drank from my ample water supply. Then, I headed down into the darkening recesses of the Grapevine Mountains and Titus Canyon. Soon, I came to the ruins of Leadfield. It is a former mining town built on the concept that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people willing to bet their lives and fortunes on an unproven mining claim. During the years 1925 and 1926, many fortune seekers succumbed to false advertising and moved to Leadfield. The only lead in Leadfield was used to salt the fake mine tunneled by the town's developer. By February 1927, the post office closed and the town shut down. Only an ersatz tailings pile and the remnants of a few buildings remain.
As the afternoon wore on, high canyon walls often shaded my truck. Since the road often faced west, I did experience more sunlight than I expected. As it descended, the road followed the dry streambed within Titus Canyon. Other than while dodging various rock outcroppings, the road seemed permanent enough to travel a bit faster. Then, without warning, I hit a patch of road with standing water and hidden potholes. Some were so deep, they could bend the suspension on any vehicle. That surfacing stream, near Klare Spring, was the only sign of water that I saw on the entire transit.
As I splashed over the watery moonscape of a road, I came across a young woman, hiking in the opposite direction, up Red Pass. She wore a light parka and a small daypack. Her ruddy face was the color of someone who had spent many days outdoors. I had only enough time to hit the brakes and apologize for splashing water toward her. Then, she was gone. Immediately, I wondered where she was going and how she would survive in the cold night to come. Did she make it out alive, from the canyon where Morris Titus met his demise?
In places, the road cuts through a canyon so steep and narrow, it measures less than twenty feet, from wall to wall. Elsewhere, the canyon broadens out, lining the edges of the road with the rock and boulder remnants of past floods. A satellite view of the area reveals that it has seen eons of erosion, cutting deeply into ancient volcanic flows. Such a bird’s eye view also reveals that miles of roadway could easily disappear in a single large flood.
At one point, the sun disappeared behind a small peak, as viewed from the road. Not knowing if I was going to see the sun again before the end of the road, I stopped, backed up and observed the sun as it set again behind the same peak. As it did, I snapped a picture of the sunlight, attenuated by its headlong dip behind the peak. The resulting photo accompanies this article.
When people take pictures of a bright light source, and especially the sun, the orbs and crescents of light, which the camera captures, we calls “lens flares”. That tag is an easy way to explain an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. How can a camera divide sunlight into discreet elements of different colors, each with its own apparent mass and velocity? My theory is that the camera is capturing in one frame, several different aspects of a fragmenting cosmic ray. As a single ray approaches ground level, its plasma flow may change from a translucent green orb to a green crescent and finally into a red-orange disk, oblate in shape.
There are two sources of cosmic rays on Earth. Some, like the one I photographed, emanate directly from the Sun. Other, higher energy cosmic rays, come to Earth from deep space. As we currently approach the Grand Solar Minimum, the sun still emits cosmic rays toward Earth. As the Earth’s magnetosphere simultaneously erodes toward its lowest level in one thousand years, ground-penetrating cosmic rays are free to hit the Earth with greater frequency and force. Since a single, fragmenting cosmic ray can penetrate the Earth and possibly exit our planet on the opposite side, they are a force of energy for all life to respect.
As the cosmic rays increase in both frequency and strength, they heat up fracture zones, transform-faults and volcanic fissures all over our Earth. The result, as we have recently seen in the Great Rift Valley of Africa and many other areas on the globe, is expansion and uplifting of the Earth’s crust. Similar forces may have turned the benign plateaus and plains roamed by the ancient Titanothere into this, one of the most dramatic geological regions on Earth.
Near the end of Red Pass, in Titus Canyon, I again encountered the three motorcyclists I had previously seen along the road. They had parked their motorcycles at the edge of the road and now lay reclined against a canyon wall, enjoying the shade of late afternoon. The road had been a test of my own stamina and concentration, so I could only image how tired they were after running all of Titus Canyon Road.
At the lower end of Titus Canyon, the watercourse dumps out its alluvium into the upper reaches of Death Valley. From there, as the sun headed toward the horizon, I safely made my way back to civilization and to my campsite at Furnace Creek, in Death Valley National Park.