The beauty of the austere, scorched landscape of Death Valley is expressed in sparsity.
Average annual precipitation on the floor of Death Valley is 1.86 inches. In July, the mean maximum temperature is 116 degrees; the average minimum is 88 degrees. Nature responds with a reduction to simplest form.
This landscape did not resonate with me at first, but, in time, I found a certain joy in its lean grandeur. I needed but to wait with the patience of stones.
Death Valley is 140 miles long and 15 miles wide, totaling 5,264 square miles, the largest National Park in the lower 48. An extension of the Mojave, Death Valley is expanding its influence as are all the great deserts of the world.
January is an excellent month to explore the park. Nights are chilly, days warm. With winter holidays behind us, the park will be quiet until spring break.
Presented here is a classic Death Valley adventure with two great pleasures, a four-wheel-drive road and a challenging hike. Titus Canyon Road crests the Grapevine Mountains, slices through a narrow, water-scoured gash, and terminates on the floor of Death Valley. Mid-way along the 27-mile road, stop to climb Thimble Peak. A neglected treasure, it is a half-day hike with a fun scramble up the summit block and sterling views over the distance. Pyramidal and chaotic, the peak is less daunting than it appears from afar.
Titus Canyon Road to Thimble Peak Trailhead: From Hells Gate at the junction of Daylight Pass Road and Beatty Cut-Off Road, drive northeast toward Beatty, Nevada, on State Route 374. Crest Daylight Pass at 6.2 miles. Turn left onto Titus Canyon Road at 13.3 miles. Zero-out your trip meter and drive west across the flat Amargosa Desert on mild washboard.
At 1.9 miles, cross the park boundary. The road transitions to one-way and takes direct aim at the Amargosa Range. In spring, wildflowers confine the narrow road. Roughly 1,000 plant species live in the park in fantastically diverse biozones. Climbing gradually, the track dodges a rock outcrop and penetrates the east side of the mountains.
At 9.7 miles, crown the first of two passes and visually locate Thimble Peak. At the bottom of the smooth descent cross Titanothere Canyon. Revel in the remarkably engineered switchbacks to Red Pass, named for the mudstone exposed there. For those who wish to hike, park in a limited pull-out at 12.6 miles.
Thimble Peak Route: From the Red Pass Trailhead – elevation 5,280 feet – a well-established social trail goes directly up the ridge to the southwest. The initial pitch is abrupt, but footing is good.
From a small saddle at 0.3 mile, look westerly. The Mount Whitney group on the Sierra crest will startle. Crafted by a ridge purist, the trail weaves through scattered shrubs on its way to the next rise. For the navigation wary, at 0.6 mile Thimble Peak appears and remains in the view corridor.
At 1.1 miles, top Thimble’s subsidiary peak, Point 6,120’. Locate the trail while it holds to a rounded southwest ridge, giving up more than 300 feet. From the next saddle, the peak trail is a slithering snake whose serpentine form takes the edge off the steepness. The route skirts a cliff while making for the northeast ridge.
From a distance, the summit block looks almost vertical. The approach over, trust the mountain and go straight up the rock. The final punch is not as radical as it appears.
Execute a Class 3 scramble. The exposure is moderate but the holds are good and the limey rock is covered in sticky points. Exposure is mild from here to the crest.
Summit Thimble Peak at 1.75 miles. Before you get lost in reverie over the killer view, analyze your immediate surroundings. The surprisingly generous zenith has an utterly abrupt eastern edge; tumbling 2,000 feet into Titanothere Canyon would be catastrophic. Locate a benchmark placed in 1949.
It is impossible to gather in the wildness of this aerie – the prismatic color, the ragged and tortured rock, the silky smooth valley that sinks to 282 feet below sea level. Look down on nearby Corkscrew Peak with its namesake spiraling rock bands. Travel with your eyes across the immensity and ascend Telescope Peak, elevation 11,048 feet. All of this is Death Valley National Park.
Titus Canyon Road, Red Pass to Scotty’s Castle Road: Leaving Red Pass, the westward track switchbacks steeply around sharp corners on an excellent surface, dropping nearly 800 feet into an entrenched valley.
The ghost town of Leadfield is at 15.7 miles, marked by a cluster of buildings hurriedly erected in 1924. Alas, the gleaming promise of silver and the earthy riches of lead quickly faded; in 1927, the post office closed and the town folded.
Past Leadfield, enter the first set of narrows. Titus Canyon proper joins forces from the right just past the squeeze. The gulch widens to reveal Klare Spring at 18.4 miles. Acknowledging this life gift, a boulder just off the road is covered in petroglyphs: bighorn sheep, anthropomorphs, a sun image, linked circles, and geometrics.
Stony chaos mesmerizes. Rock created in wildly divergent circumstances and epochs are smashed together in a brilliant tapestry. Layers tilt 70 degrees. High walls are infused with shining quartzite, saffron shale, and brooding, spent volcanics.
Titus is one of the rare canyons in Death Valley that bifurcates a mountain range successfully. While it seems incongruous in this driest of all deserts, the mightiest operational force is water. At 23 miles, enter sinuous narrows water-blasted through limestone and dolomite. It feels downright other-worldly to squeeze through the passageway not much wider than our vehicle.
At 24 miles, the canyon terminates at the base of the Grapevine Mountains, its job complete. There is a large parking lot at this opening. People who do not wish to drive the entire four-wheel-drive stretch can experience the best of the narrows by walking up-canyon from here. Reach Scotty’s Castle Road and turn left to return to Furnace Creek.
Road Biking in Death Valley: If you like to ride, bring your bike. Traffic is light and roads are smooth. These are my three favorite rides.
Texas Creek Campground to Dante’s View: 52 miles, 5,800 feet total climbing; final three miles, 10% grade; last 0.3 mile, 18 percent. Take the essential spur to Zabriskie Point. The view from Dante’s is worth every standup crank of the pedal.Texas Creek Campground to Badwater: Visit the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Loop through Artists Drive for dazzling color at Artists Palette. 42 miles; 2,850 feet total climbing. On Artists Drive, four miles of eight to 15 percent.Stovepipe Wells Campground to Daylight Pass. Ride on Highway 190 toward Furnace Creek to Beatty Cutoff Road. Climb to Daylight Pass, and take the direct route back to Stovepipe. 51 miles; 5,239 feet of climbing; maximum grade is 12½ percent. Roundtrip from Texas Creek Campground to Daylight Pass is 58 miles.