Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Titus Canyon

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After my visit to, and hike around, Ubehebe Crater, the next destination of my 3rd day in Death Valley National Park was Titus Canyon. Although I had come to Death Valley to see the spring wildflower bloom I was having memorable adventures exploring other park sights and features.

Titus Canyon is in the Grapevine Mountains in the northeastern part of the park. Unlike most other canyons in the Death Valley, it can be visited either on foot or by vehicle. For hiking, you drive up the lower/western end of Titus Canyon Rd, an unimproved gravel road, for about 2.7 miles to a trailhead. On the way there are nice views of the Grapevine Mountains, in which Titus Canyon is located.

photo of approach to Titus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains

Approach to Titus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains

The trailhead parking is obvious, and signage indicates that the trailhead serves adjacent Fall Canyon as well as Titus Canyon. There are a number of things that are interesting about Titus Canyon, besides the fact that it is possible to drive through it – with a 4WD high-clearance vehicle. Beyond the trailhead Titus Canyon Rd is one-way, beginning at its other end some 21 miles to the east on Nevada Hwy 374 (Daylight Pass Rd) outside the park boundary. Along the portion of the road that most Titus Canyon visitors only experience by driving there is the ghost town of Leadfield, Klare Spring, and 5300-foot high Red Pass; for reference, the trailhead is at about 900 feet elevation.

photo of map of Titus Canyon Rd

Map of Titus Canyon Rd

For hiking, once you have parked at the trailhead you can hike in as far as you like as an out-and-back hike; I don’t think you could make a loop out of it, even over to adjacent Fall Canyon. In any case, I simply hiked up the canyon about 2.5 miles and then back down. The GPS track shows the route, with the orange dot denoting the trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track

As with many other canyons in Death Valley, the canyon floor climbs up and away from the valley floor.   You can see this by the elevation contours on the GPS track, and even more easily on the elevation profile. The grade is very consistent, and is a comfortable 6%.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Not far from the trailhead I noticed that the crescent moon was visible above the canyon wall. I thought it made a pretty picture.

photo of moon above the wall of Titus Canyon

Moon above the wall of Titus Canyon

The trail simply follows the road, which is one-way after the trailhead. Hike descriptions suggest doing this hike early in the day in order to reduce the chance of encountering oncoming vehicle traffic. Information for many park sights seems to suggest visiting early or late in the day – in hotter summer weather this avoids being out in the sun at mid-day – but if your time is limited it is simply impractical to miss the main part of the day. I started hiking about 1pm on a Saturday and hoped not to encounter too much traffic. Fortunately, today’s high-clearance vehicles are not electric, so you hear them shortly before you see them. This picture shows what it’s like when a vehicle is coming down the road.

photo of here comes a car!

Here comes a car!

Titus Canyon is, in part, a slot canyon, where the walls are much taller than the width of the canyon. Although some slot canyon areas are so narrow that it can be difficult for a person to walk, Titus Canyon is relatively wide, but still with walls that at times rise hundreds of feet. The bottom 2 miles or so is referred to as The Narrows, and this view is fairly typical. For scale, note the two hikers on the road.

photo of Titus Canyon: The Narrows

Titus Canyon: The Narrows

Because of the high canyon walls it is easy to imagine that not many plants will be found. On the other hand, Titus Canyon serves a watershed area of about 35 square miles, so when rain does come, a lot of water runs down the canyon floor. I found several types of plant that seemed unique compared to other places in the park that I visited, and I have not yet been able to identify them. One is this red grass-like plant that grows in bunches.

photo of red grass-like plant

Red grass-like plant

Not far away was another reddish-looking plant, where the red color comes more from the stems than from the tiny leaves.

photo of red-hued plant

Red-hued plant

Also I found several types of more typical green plants. This one was interesting because it had what seemed to be old blossoms, and the leaves were fuzzy – lay person’s term for hairy or wooly!

photo of so-called (by me) fuzzy plant

So-called (by me) fuzzy plant

About 2 miles from the trailhead the canyon begins to open up, transforming from a slot-type configuration to a more typical canyon as the walls become less vertical. Although I would have enjoyed hiking further, I knew I didn’t have time to go all the way to the next major feature (Klare Spring, about 6.5 miles in) so I simply set a one-hour time limit and turned around at that time. As I was approaching my time limit, there was a nice view of a nearby mini-peak. My GPS software shows an unnamed high point in about the right location with a peak height of nearly 3400 feet; I was at just under 1700 feet elevation when I took the picture.

photo of view of a nearby mini-peak from my turnaround point in Titus Canyon

View of a nearby mini-peak from my turnaround point in Titus Canyon

On the return trip I got to re-experience the canyon, from the uphill side rather than looking uphill. Not far from where I turned around I noticed an area with particularly interesting rock layers, with clearly defined strata perhaps 6-10 feet thick. The road provides a rough length scale.

photo of well-defined rock layers in the canyon walls

Well-defined rock layers in the canyon walls

I noticed a few plants that, amazingly, had found sustenance in small cracks several feet up the canyon walls; here the walls were mostly smooth. Although the leaves are superficially similar, with ovate toothed shape, to the plants I saw earlier on the hike, the leaves of these plants were not hairy.

photo of plants clinging to the canyon wall

Plants clinging to the canyon wall

Here is another view of the canyon, illustrating how the road snakes around localized formations and is, in places, barely wide enough for the single-lane road.

photo of Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon

I have found, on many previous out-and-back hikes, that the scenery often looks different on the outbound and return trips. Here is an example: on the outbound hike I barely noticed this dramatic undercut area, but on the return trip it was hard to miss, perhaps because it was straight ahead of me. In any case, just as I stopped to take a picture, a family came into view hiking up the canyon. After I took the picture and we got closer to each other, the adults were about to apologize for photo-bombing my picture. Instead, I thanked them for providing a length scale!

photo of undercut in the canyon wall

Undercut in the canyon wall

Also it is noteworthy that the lower 20 feet or so of the canyon wall is much smoother than the higher area. Although this could be due to different rock types, it is likely also, at least in part, an indication of how deep the rushing water can get immediately after a rain storm. It is another reminder not to venture into canyons if there is a forecast for rain.

Approaching the trailhead the canyon seems to suddenly end, as it emerges from the edge of the mountains onto the alluvial fan leading down into Death Valley. Especially after hiking a couple of hours in the canyon, it is a striking and beautiful change in the view.

photo of approaching the mouth of Titus Canyon

Approaching the mouth of Titus Canyon

I saw very few wildflowers on this hike: just a few notch-leaf phacelia and golden evening primrose between the trailhead sign and the actual entrance to the canyon, and a few cryptantha farther up the canyon. The canyon itself is an impressive place, and I was glad to experience it on foot and to have the opportunity to take my time and savor the feeling of being in the canyon.

My next stop, and final stop for the day, was the Salt Creek Trail, along CA-190 between Mud Canyon and Beatty Cutoff.

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One Response to Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Titus Canyon

  1. Pingback: Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Salt Creek Trail | trailhiker

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