On the Trail: Titus Canyon in Death Valley
Titus Canyon looks like an angry god carved it from rock in a fit of rage. But then again, many of the other things in Death Valley look that way, too. In this installment of On the Trail, Matt Moghaddam (@desertchief) guides Driving Line Pit Crew members Geoff Tumang (@geoff.t) and Johnathan Hume (@J_fordraptor) through the intricacies of Titus Canyon, a deep, narrow gorge sliced into Death Valley National Park at the junction of southwestern Nevada and southeastern California. (Watch the full episode here)
Death Valley Daze
Death Valley lives up to its name by being one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. It's among the hottest and driest places you'll find on the whole planet. That said, it's also a fun place for desert off-roading.
For our excursion, Geoff brought his 2020 Ford F-150 with 35-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers. Although he built it as a tow rig for the race cars seen in our Driver Battle series, it's also his play rig and the Trail Grapplers give him the versatility for towing and off-roading. Matt brought his 2020 Ford Ranger into the fray. It packs an APG Prorunner conversion, King shocks, Baja Designs lighting, and 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers too. Johnathan's 2019 Ford Raptor rides on 37-inch Trail Grapplers. It also sports a RPG Off-Road upgrade with FOX 3.0 light valve shocks.
You don't need anything built-up for Titus Canyon, though. A two-wheel drive, high-clearance truck or SUV should do just fine out there.
Driving into the canyon is pretty much a one-way trip and that way runs East to West on its narrow road. Total driving time should run you two to three hours, but do yourself a favor and take time to stop and look around a bit while you're here.
Like the name implies, Death Valley is a very remote area. Let's face it. Unless you're Sauron, you don't want to live in a place this hot and dry. Visit? Sure. Settle down, get a job, and raise some kids here? Not so much. Amenities are nonexistent in Death Valley. GPS and paper maps and some sort of satellite communicator are vital. Cellular reception is questionable here but a good satellite phone lets you call emergency services regardless of that. And good sunscreen is essential here, too.
The first leg of the trip felt like your basic fire road over mostly flat terrain. You'll want to watch out for washboards and take it easy on them during this phase of the trip. The top level of dirt runs pretty loose and it can bite you in the butt if you're not careful.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
So far, so good. Our heroes made their way along the rocky road at a good clip. For the most part. Even if you are cautious, well, as the old military adage goes, "No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy." Geoff experienced that for himself at this point when his F-150 was the proud recipient of a coolant leak.
Death Valley isn't the best place to spring a coolant leak; not only does the heat beat down on you, the remoteness compounds the issue as well. Luckily, our crew comes loaded for bear in the preparedness department. A little jury rigging with some zip ties and a hose clamp and Geoff was back in business. If you find yourself in this situation and don't have extra coolant, water (preferably distilled) will do in a pinch. It wasn't the prettiest fix in history, but it got Geoff back in the game.
The Quick and the Dead
If you want to keep going and not find your vehicle dead in the desert, there are some more essential things to bring out Titus Canyon, just in case. Friends, for one thing. Just like the wagon trains of old, there's a greater chance of success caravaning in a group. Basic tools, zip ties, and water are must-haves also.
Blazing Saddle (or Not)
With one eye on the coolant and another on the trail, the crew drove on to the zenith of their journey: Red Pass. At 5200 feet above sea level, it's the highest point of our trip and sits in the saddle of two peaks in the Grapevine Mountains. You'd think the heat here would be blazing hot but in fact the cool breeze kept temps to a nice 78F. From here, it's all downhill into some switchbacks in to Titus Canyon itself.
While the trip isn't very technical, it's still a good idea to keep an eye on where you're going and know where your tires are; part of that means matching your speed to the terrain as you head down. If your vehicle is new enough to have Hill Assist as one of its features, you'll find it useful during this next phase of the trip, as it applies braking to each wheel individually along the way. Seeing as how this trip doesn't throw a lot of tough obstacles at you, it's a great opportunity to really learn your gear and your vehicle at low risk. And if you're new to the concept of engine braking on a downhill, this is a good place to familiarize yourself with it.
Winding down into the canyon, Matt, Geoff, and Johnathan stopped at the ghost town of Leadfield for a little history lesson. Leadfield grew out of rumors of lead deposits in 1926 and 1927. The rumors, started by a con man named CC Julian, were just that. Now the dead ruins of broken dreams serve only as a reminder of why you shouldn't believe everything you hear. They also make a pretty cool place to explore over lunch while taking your lunch break from the trail, like we did. Having checked out the old buildings that remained, it was time to get back to business.
Titus Canyon may look like some angry god of myth went medieval on it with a big axe but the truth is considerably less metal than that. Eons of ice melt and erosion carved the narrow canyon into what you see now. Of course, absolutely none of that ice melt remains here whatsoever, as Morris Titus and his mining expedition found out when they took a wrong turn and ended up in the canyon that now bears his name. Sadly, there was no water to be found in the canyon and all of the people in the group succumbed to dehydration.
For as inhospitable as Death Valley is, however, it's also a terrific place for getting away from daily life without hopping on an airplane, as Geoff alludes to at the end of this episode. As the world edges closer to post-pandemic life, those of us who've discovered off-roading as a way to take shorter range trips may have found the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.