Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Titus Canyon Road: A Little History and a Few Maps

Now that we've arrived at Red Pass, and we've even taken a little hike, let's stop, absorb the view, and reminisce a bit.
The view west from Red Pass.
My experience with Titus Canyon probably dates to the early or mid 1980s when I was working for Former Mining Company down in the Mojave Desert of California. At that time, my minerals exploration work consisted of operating and running reconnaissance and project work, the latter of which generally consists of geologic mapping, surface sampling (rocks, soils, stream sediments), an occasional geophysical survey or two, and drilling (back then, all the drilling I did as part of gold exploration and evaluation was RC drilling, see more here).

Over the years, I've used the road into and through Titus Canyon mostly to get from here to there by way of a more scenic passage, a route that runs close to the geology (sometimes within arms reach). This alternative course can't really be called a short cut because the main roads into the Mojave, 95 and 395, are usually more direct and almost always much faster. Because of Titus Canyon Road's relative inefficiency in getting me to my destination, I haven't driven it more than a handful of times over the past three-plus decades, and two out of those maybe 5 to 6 total times have been within the last ten years. Back in the day—when I took this out-of-the-way "short cut" mostly from Beatty, Nevada, to Baker, California, when I was likely heading for Baker (yikes!), Barstow, or Ridgecrest—I generally drove the road alone in a half-ton, 4WD Ford pickup truck with a regular cab and full length bed. (I may have driven the road once or twice with a field assistant as passenger...maybe.)
“Short cuts make long delays.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
My present-day impressions of the road and canyon are probably heavily biased by whatever state the road was in back then, and perhaps they are affected by the relatively long wheelbase of the truck I was driving. At least in my imperfect memory, Titus Canyon Road (the TCR) was largely untraveled back then, meaning that on the entire one-way trip (which, like I said or implied, I usually made as quickly as possible with very few stops because I was on my way to a destination still a few to several hours distant) I doubt that I saw as many as four vehicles—and I really don't remember seeing more than one or two. In other words, the TCR was a back road that few people knew about, or if they did, they didn't bother to use it. The road was only for true Death Valley or Saline Valley aficionados (the road to Saline Valley is a real 4WD road, one not to be scoffed at, while the TCR rarely requires 4WD, depending on one's vehicle and off-road skill level).
As you know if you've been reading my recent Death Valley blog series, the last time I went down the TCR was with MOH back in late February of this year. There were several vehicles parked at Leadfield when we arrived, and there were many more vehicles quite a ways behind us (I was driving relatively fast on the road, once again trying to make it through to reach a particular destination: the superbloom down near Badwater). I just don't recall the road being so heavily traveled back in the 80s, when I probably would have been on it mostly in December through May at the latest.
“I met one other fella' on the trail...”
Ronald Swartley, 26 'spilling' miles to Death Valley, Am Motorcyclist (1978)
Note: I would personally hesitate to drive the road from mid May through sometime in October, November, or December (depending on the local weather) without a SPOT, which of course we didn't have back in the 80s. An equivalent type of safety backup back then might have been a car phone, although I personally had very poor luck with such a device in the late 80s down near the fairly populated (by Nevada standards) area of Victorville, Apple Valley, and (ugh!) Lucerne Valley (link to a great description of the seedy place at the Urban Dictionary; matches my remembrances of that sh**hole to a T).

My memories of the TCR center mostly around the awe-inspiring views from the heights of Red Pass and the incredible twisting, winding, and dropping of the road into the valley at Leadfield. The curves seemed tighter in a full length pickup than they do in a Jeep (or the current road is wider). My clearance over the rocks on the final steep pitch approaching Leadfield has always been fairly good, but I may have had to dodge them a little more assiduously back then (I wonder if the road was maintained as frequently?). Most recently, I've been surprised both times at the length of the first section of the trip, from the pavement of Nevada S.R. 374 to the apex of Red Pass. Oh, and of course the slot canyon near the end has always been fun. It's become quite a popular hiking area, something I don't really recall from earlier days, either. Another Note: the NPS say the Titus Canyon road is the most popular backroad in Death Valley National Park.

A cabin at Leadfield.
I regret, once again, that I haven't ever stopped to get a photo of the worst section of the road, the bedrocky part where you have to dodge a few rock masses sticking up out of the road in quite an inconvenient fashion, but I'm usually too busy driving...and dodging...and then it's over.

While doing a little research for this rambling post, I stumbled across a factoid previously unknown to me. As recently as 1978, Red Pass was known by some, including the National Park Service, as Bloody Gap—presumably because of the red color of the rocks rather anything because of anything nefarious in its history. I first noticed Bloody Gap being used in the caption of this old postcard [no longer available]. It was mentioned in this descriptive bit about Leadfield in Desert Magazine (1968), in this L.A. Times article (1969), and in this American Motorcyclist story (1978). The USGS, however, doesn't list Bloody Gap as an alternate name for Red Pass.

On my way to finding every mention of Bloody Gap that I could (including a few more links to selling old postcards on Ebay or what-have-you), I looked at old maps to find Bloody Gap, and also to see if another old name for part of the canyon, "Lost Canyon," was ever published.

By 1954, the TCR was shown as one way.
1954 Death Valley 1:250,000 sheet, courtesy USGS
And in 1961 and 1964, Titanothere Canyon was shown as "Titanother Canyon."
1961 Death Valley 1:250,000 sheet, courtesy USGS.
In 1985, the 30x60 Saline Valley map showed Titanothere Canyon (with an "e" at the end) and Red Pass. No Bloody Gap. No Lost Canyon. There was, however, quite a gap in map making between 1964 and 1985!
1985 Saline Valley 1:100,000 sheet, courtesy USGS.
For reference, here's a bit of the most current 7.5' topo map with everything as we know it today:
1988 Thimble Peak 1:24,000 map, courtesy USGS.
We'll be dropping from Red Pass into the eastern branch of Titus Canyon next time.

Related Posts:

Beatty: Old Buildings, A Fold, and Onward toward Titus Canyon

The Approach to Titus Canyon: Amargosa Narrows, Bullfrog Pit, and the Original Bullfrog Mine

Mineral Monday: Close-Ups of Bullfrog Ore from the Original Bullfrog Mine, Nevada

The Approach to Titus Canyon: Tan Mountain

The Approach to Titus Canyon: Up and over White Pass

The Approach to Titus Canyon: To Red Pass

The Approach to Titus Canyon: Just Below Red Pass

A Hike at Red Pass, Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley, CAcu

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