Every trip to Death Valley has a big day. Each one is different, with a different focus. This time, it was bicycling Titus Canyon. I’ve heard about this place, seen the photos, and knew some of the geology. There were some logistical problems with seeing the canyon that I had to surmount. It is a one-way road and 28 miles long. I either had to find another person to shuttle me, or ride the whole thing myself. I chose to ride the whole thing. This was also the first time I had allotted a day just to bicycling in Death Valley.
I decided to start the ride about an hour earlier than I had planned to ensure I had enough time to complete the ride before dark. I parked the car near the junction of Scotty’s Castle Road and Mud Canyon Road, and changed into my cycling gear. As it was predicted to be cold, I chose to wear my bib shorts, bib tights, long sleeve jersey, balaclava, shoe covers, and my thickest gloves. I had my new three liter Camelbak pack with me, three bottles of Gatorade, a few Clif bars, and some cookies. I was ready for anything! Well, more or less.
I started the ride at about 8:30am. The ride started off with a climb, that didn’t relent for 13 miles with an average grade of about 6%. The first three miles were in a small canyon, Mud Canyon, which was nice. Having something nearby made it feel like it went faster. After that, and for the next five miles, I was riding up an alluvial fan. A steep one at that! Near the pullout for Death Valley Buttes, a couple had stopped to take photos of the area. Once they saw me, they took a couple photos of me climbing the grade, asked me how I was doing. I told them, I’d know in eight miles and kept on climbing. I stopped, briefly, at the junction with the Beatty Cutoff Road, my only real stop in about four miles. It didn’t last long, as I had more miles to go, more climbing to be done. Now back in a canyon, Boundary Canyon, the climbing got a slight steeper. The scenery was quite nice, the Grapevine Mountains to the north, Funeral Mountains to the south.
So far, things were going well, temperatures were decent, and I was feeling good. As the mile markers went by, I would count down to the top – mile 13, knowing I was getting closer all the time. There were a couple of times I had thought to pull over and rest, but decided to just keep on moving. I was so close to the top! Finally, I saw the summit of Daylight Pass, and pulled off. It was a good place to rest for a few minutes. The longest climb of the ride, 4100’ in 13 miles, was over. It took me about an hour and 45 minutes to climb, a bit faster than I had predicted. It was at this point I decided I would be able to make it through Titus Canyon with enough time.
I had been a bit warm climbing, that soon ended as I descended into Amargosa Valley and Nevada. It seemed like temperatures dropped twenty degrees, I was cold! It would be the running theme of the day, hot and cold. Crossing the valley seemed to take a long time. Distances in these valleys can be great, even though it looks close. As I neared the turnoff, I saw a vehicle had pulled over at the junction, and a bunch of bicycles were being unloaded. I assumed they were going to ride Titus Canyon, as they were riding mountain bikes. One of them was taking photos, and took some photos of me as I approached. I waved, and turned left onto Titus Canyon Road. This was the point that my cyclocross bike comes in handy.
I easily transitioned onto the dirt road, and kept on moving. It would be a long dirt road, with more than 3000’ of climbing ahead of me. Parts were rough, others were smooth, overall, having shocks would have been nice but weren’t necessary. Having been cold on the descent, I was again warm on the ascent. The first few miles were on the bajada, and were slow. Once I reached the canyon, things seemed to go quicker. The scenery just kept on getting better too. I stopped many times on this climb, mostly to let cars go by so I wouldn’t have to breathe in the dust kicked up by them. After about 10 miles, the climb got really steep. After, I reached a summit.
Finally! The climbing stopped, for a bit. I knew something wasn’t quite right though. I was at a summit, but not the summit. The photos and the maps showed a switchback and a climb through a red rock area. I hadn’t seen anything like that yet. It was time to get out the map. Yup, I had more to go, and a bit more climbing. The bulk of it was over, but I wasn’t quite sure how much more to go. While I was stopped, someone drove up in a truck. They had said they saw someone a few miles back on a road bike! Now, my bicycle looks like a road bike, but they had commented on how much wider my tires were, so maybe they did see one. Not sure why someone would take such a bike here, even my tires slipped in places. A road tire has no knobs for grip, so they may have had more walking than riding at times.
So far, still feeling good, a little tired, but not bad. I headed on down the road, and down it went! After about a mile, it descended, steeply. I finally saw the switchbacks in the red rock area, now about 800’ higher than me. The last major climb would end up being the steepest. It went alright though. I stopped once to take some photos, and then went the rest of the way to the top. At long last, the top of Red Pass was at hand. From this point on, the ride was mostly downhill. The first couple of miles were very rocky and fairly steep. The views, however, made up for any of the trouble from the descent. The canyon just got better and better as I went along. Upon reaching the site of Leadfield, it was time for another photo stop.
There was a sign there, and a good landmark to get another bike photo. While I was doing that, a couple on a motorcycle pulled up. It was a dirt bike; I think it could be called a dual sport. They commented on my bicycle, asked how the riding was so far. I told them it was going ok, just a bit bumpy at times. They also seemed to need a better map, only using the standard park map which doesn’t show contours that well. After I took my photos, I continued my journey. The canyon changed directions after about another half mile or so, rather abruptly. It also got really cold, felt like the coldest yet on the ride.
Now, after going over Red Pass, I thought I was in Titus Canyon. It was all downhill from there, it still was. As it turned out, the previous few miles were in another canyon, as I passed a sign stating “Entering Titus Canyon”. It also seemed some brave soul drove a sedan this far, so I knew I should be able to make the rest without too much trouble. I was right. After having kept an average speed of no greater than 8 mph, I was easily riding at 15 to nearly 20 mph down this dirt road. I stopped many times down the canyon, to take photos and just enjoy the scenery. I never went so fast I couldn’t enjoy the view, I also didn’t want to lose control. This was definitely not the area to do so. A couple of miles down from the “entrance” to the canyon, I passed a couple of mountain bikers going uphill. They had climbed quite a bit to get to that spot, not sure how far they were going. The canyon, so far, was wide and deep. I knew the end of the canyon was quite narrow, so it was going to be interesting to see the features created by the water that does flow down this canyon on occasion. The rock I was passing by was very beautiful. It was marine limestone, shale, and sandstone from the Cambrian. It was heavily faulted and folded, which showed in many places.
As I got closer to the bottom of the canyon, the sides got steeper and higher. I was getting to the narrow portion of the canyon. The first section consisted of some megabreccia, which almost looked like graffiti at first. It had been smoothed quite a bit, abraded from the large sediment-rich flows that come this way during a storm. I was glad to see nearly clear skies above, no threat of floods today. I was told the canyon was very narrow at the bottom, to the point that some cars would have trouble making it. While it didn’t quite get that bad, it was far narrower than the upper portions of the canyon would have you think. All that drainage, going to this 15 foot wide canyon. Don’t be here when it rains. Not only was the narrows a sign the canyon was ending, but the number of hikers was also a clue. The lower portion is quite popular to hike in, so it couldn’t be far now. Just another mile or so, the canyon ended. It opened into the northern portion of Death Valley, creating one large alluvial fan. Just around the next bend, I saw all the cars for the hikers. Quite a few, but not all went to Titus Canyon; some went to Falls Canyon, just to the north. From this point, to the paved road, was some of the worst dirt road I had traveled. This section was two-way, and was very much washboard. I had nearly three miles of this until reaching the paved road.
At long last! Pavement! This was the first pavement I had ridden that was nearly flat too. For that matter, some of the first flat riding on the whole trip. I still had another 15 miles to go, but it wouldn’t take long. I kept a rather brisk pace, around 18 to 20 mph most of the way. These miles were at first going by fast, but as I got closer to the end, my energy was fading. I needed to eat, but felt I was close enough to the end that stopping wasn’t going to help. I just slowed down and didn’t push it any more than necessary. There was a slight crossing headwind the whole way down the pavement, but it was never a problem. The last few miles were over rolling hills, never a climb over 50’. About five miles from the end, the couple on the motorcycle passed me one last time, waved. Even gave me a thumbs up! It was cool. After I passed the last mile marker, mile 1, I finally saw the car. My ride was at an end. What a journey! I made it back at about 3:15pm, with 60 miles of riding and 8400’ of climbing. I finished, not too tired, but was definitely done for the day. I ate the rest of my snacks, drank a bit more fluids, and was feeling much better. After about twenty minutes, I packed the bike into the car, and headed back to camp. Dinner would be coming soon, and I’d feast for sure. Another big ride accomplished, another big day in Death Valley.