Titus Canyon, Death Valley
(Nevada & California)
Consider Yourself Warned
The mostly one way road that begins about 6 miles west of Beatty, Nevada near the ghost town of Rhyolite and finishes by traveling through Death Valley's Titus Canyon is an amazing drive through dramatic geological features but is not for the faint-of-heart. The approach to and initial descent from Red Pass around the 12 mile point is an unexpected test of your driver's grit, your passenger's nerves, and your vehicle's suitability. Don't do it if any of you are having a bad day.

Leave Yourself Plenty of Time
We began the 27 mile journey mid-afternoon on a day when the sun sank behind the distant Cottonwood Mountains about 5pm. We exited the canyon in time to see the sun slip out of view but the overall experience would have been better had we begun hours earlier. As it was, we were looking into the sun the entire way, though had relief in the shadows of canyons. But the stunning geology wasn't as visible as it might have been because of the dark shadows, especially on our approach to the Grapevine Mountains. The middle of the route is very slow going--creeping at a few miles an hour while negotiating steep, extremely tight turns. We desperately wanted to be off the most precarious segments of the road before dark but did not know how far they extended. The result was an unfortunate overlay of time pressure anxiety on white knuckle driving competing with the desire to linger longer and take more photos. Heading out in the late morning would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

The Challenges
The entire 27 mile road is unpaved and much of it is serious washboard. Fortunately it's one way so you don't have to worry about oncoming traffic, except for a couple of easy going miles at each end. But being one way also means that you have no option for turning around even if you decide you or your vehicle aren't up to it. Many parts of the road will raise your eyebrows but the road above Titus Canyon proper in the vicinity of Red Pass is dangerous because its narrowness coincides with steep pitches and abrupt drop-offs.

We were driving our long bed pick-up with an extended cab (vs the even longer crew cab models) and its 21' length was uncomfortable on the hair pin turns. I crept along on the tightest turns, splitting the available road width between my best guess of what would keep both my front and rear tires on the road. Occasionally Bill would offer "It's a little close over here" but there was nothing to do differently--I was already using the full width of the road. Driving this road with an even longer wheel based vehicle than ours would be nasty. And the next day Bill commented that he thought the road would have been impassable with the extra width demanded by duallies.

After Bill's comment about duallies, I promptly started asking dually owners if they'd done Titus Canyon or knew if it was ill-advised. My question and reason for it was enough for the first dually owners to declare that they wouldn't be doing the road because of the drop-off's. A stop at the Furnace Creek rangers station allowed time for their input and the answer was "No, no we don't recommend Titus Canyon for duallies or long-beds--too narrow." Humm, not recommended.... " Bill's later response was that other roads had length restrictions indicated on the Park's map (though 25'), so why didn't Titus Canyon. Aghast, we congratulated ourselves on our success and realized that we'd probably never seen that stunning route if we'd known.

Our geology book indicated 2 wheel drive, high clearance cars were fine for the route though the Park Service's posted recommendation was for 4 wheel drive. On the first of several very tight, narrow, and steep turns I stopped on a 20+% grade to switch into 4 wheel drive for the needed traction. Our nerves needed for our front-end heavy truck to stick to the surface better so as to make the grade without any gyrations, which would have been totally unacceptable given the imminent drop-off. We recommend having 4 wheel drive and switching into it when you start climbing around 11 miles after the turn-off from Hwy 374 so it's there when you need it--even if you don't have to stop to engage the additional traction because you won't even want to blink while carving some of those curves.

The several especially tight corkscrew turns were hair-raising near Red Pass because of our long wheel base and I breathed a sign of relief when we paused at the top to take in the view. Much to my disappointment, the start down from the summit greeted us with equally tight turns. Part of the stress of the situation came from not knowing when the worst was behind us. As it turned out, the most dangerous segments are on either side of Red Pass's summit but high clearance is a must in many places.

We were lucky in that we didn't see another vehicle on the road so we weren't eating dust and could take the time we needed to traverse at a safe speed. If you are following another car, don't tailgate because the driver may slow suddenly to evaluate a curve or negotiate an area of extremely rough surfaces.

Our geology book author recommended not doing this road on a wet day because the shales in some areas could be quite slick. That's advise I'd heed because staying on the road feels like a near thing in several places even on a dry day.

Yes it feels dangerous, it is a sweaty-palms event for all in the vehicle, but it's also an absolutely dazzling tour through peaks, crags, faults, and amazing tilts of naked geology spanning an unusually long period of time.

By the time you see the sign indicating that you are entering Titus Canyon proper (from its tributary) at about the 16 mile point, everyone can relax. The road is more level, smoother, and mercifully less steep. There are no more cliffs to inadvertently drive off the edge of. Going through the narrows a little lower down gets exciting again because it looks like it will become too, too narrow but it's a snap to drive--a little adrenaline rush with zero danger.