How have I never written about Titus Canyon before?
I have driven Titus Canyon Road more times than I have fingers; have spent hours photographing sunrises along the famous Red Pass. I’ve been here when it was snowing, and when it has been over 100 degrees. In all honesty these aren’t the first words that I’ve written, on at least one other occasion I’ve sat down and tried to come up with something to say, but ended up at a loss for words. I still have no idea what I’m going to say, but here it goes…
If coming from Death Valley National Park, the drive begins along Highway 374, drive 2.75-miles east of the Park boundary sign. Turn left on the dirt road, which is clearly marked “Titus Canyon.” There is a gate just a short distance from the highway. If it is open, continue on for the next six miles across the open desert and washboard-dirt road. If the gate is closed, it is likely because a storm has recently washed out a portion of the roadway. The Park Service is very finicky in regard to this road, because it is “the most popular back-country road in Death Valley National Park”.
The Park Service does recommend a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for this road, but 4WD is never needed under normal circumstance. 2WD with decent clearance will suffice here; and no, that doesn’t mean your Prius. Keep that POS on the pavement, where it belongs. It is also worth noting that this is a one way road, twenty-seven miles in length. If you are not familiar with desert travel, check out my list: Essential items for Desert Travel.
After the six miles of open desert, you begin to descent into Titanothere Canyon via White Pass. Yes, I said…not Titus Canyon. You don’t actually enter Titus Canyon for several miles. This is a very common misconception, and one that I had made for several years. Titanothere, is beautiful and shares many characteristics of Titus Canyon. This canyon received its name after the discovery of a skull of titanothere in the canyon, in 1933. Tapir, squirrel, dog, oreodont, camel, and horse fossils have also been recovered from the Titus Canyon Formation. This formation of sandstone, shale and conglomerate was deposited in lakes and rivers 31 million years ago.
After several miles of winding through Titanothere Canyon, the road turns red, and you begin to climb Red Pass. Red Pass provides for some of the best views of Titanothere, as well as Titus Canyon, once reaching the overlook, at the top of the pass. The rock of Red Pass is yet another part of the Titus Canyon Formation, it is composed of stream and lakeshore sandstones.
For those of you that wish to really dig into the science behind the Titus Canyon Formation, I recommend reading: THE TITUS CANYON FORMATION: EVIDENCE FOR EARLY OLIGOCENE EXTENSION IN THE DEATH VALLEY AREA, CA.
The top of Red Pass is a must stop. There is pull off on the Titanothere side, before rounding the bend to Titus Canyon. For a photographer, this is the gold. It is a splendid location to catch the first rays at sunrise, as the peaks of the Grapevine Mountains catch fire.
Leaving Red Pass, you are now dropping into Titus Canyon. Rather quickly you will begin to notice the mines on the walls of the canyon. The ghost town of Leadfield is just a few twists and turns away. Leadfield was a boom and bust town, it boomed for only a few short months before busting like no other. During those months in 1926 and 1927, over two hundred residents would call the town home. Evidence of the town is still visible today in the form of still standing metal buildings, fallen over wooden buildings, tin-can dump sites, dug-out miners homes, among other things. You are also driving on the road which was once the main street in and out-of-town.
After rounding the bend on your way out of Leadfield, there is about 2.20 miles until you reach the site of Klare Spring. Here you may find small puddles or streams of water on the road. Klare Spring is a perennial spring, which means that it flows year round. Bighorn sheep are known to frequent the area, because of the reliable water source. Here there are also several limestone boulders, that contain Native American petroglyphs (or “rock art”). This site has been very badly vandalized over the years, and modern carvings can be found alongside the ancient writings.
Leaving Klare Springs, you are quickly approaching the Titus Canyon narrows. Many people see the narrows as the highlight of the trip, the walls close in leaving only about twenty feet to zigzag between. Use caution in the narrows, this portion of Titus Canyon is popular with hikers, that are entering from the lower mouth of the canyon. Pay close attention to the walls of the canyon, there are some truly stunning designs worth stopping to check out, including a beautiful mosaic wall of black and white stone.
Once the narrows come to an end, you are dumped out on an alluvial fan in Death Valley. I tend to find it rather eerie coming from such a dark and tightly confined area, into a massive basin where you can see for miles in each direction. It is almost as if the canyon is giving birth to you…yes, I went there…sorry.
From the mouth of the Titus Canyon, drive 2.66 miles to Scotty’s Castle Road, and your journey is complete.