The Long Road to Titus Canyon
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
It started for me two years ago when I made my first trip to Death Valley National Park. I was rolling along the road to Ubehebe Crater when I passed a little dirt road named “Titus Canyon” that gradually sloped out of the valley floor until hitting a seemingly impassable rock wall a few miles in the distance. No signs of the road switching back and climbing over it… just abruptly ending.
Fast forward to a year later, I had done a bit of research and found that the road does in fact go through the range and over the Nevada border. It’s a 25 mile stretch of dirt that is a one-way road from the Nevada side into California. Plans were set, and I was going to give it a shot. Only hitch was that I wanted to climb it rather than descend it (on a road bike), so I would be heading up going the “wrong” direction, then looping around over a paved pass back into Death Valley…
It was just about one year ago as I write this that I finally turned onto Titus Canyon, climbed the few miles of gravel to the mouth of the canyon, and something happened that I’ve only told a few about to this day. I wound through the first few corners of the slot canyon until I saw a man lying on the ground, not breathing, no pulse, nothing. Roughly 10 minutes prior to my arriving, he had died of a heart attack. To make a long and depressing story short, the ride did not happen that day…the last day of the trip before heading back to Los Angeles.
Fast forward 10 months later to December 2014… Weather was cooling down again in Death Valley, and I had an open weekend to give it another chance. The initial plan was to head straight to Death Valley, but as I hit the 395 heading north, patches of clouds lingering in the Sierras to the west made it impossible to resist spending a day at Whitney Portal and Horseshoe Meadows. Both are classic Sierra Nevada climbs which I’ve done numerous times and are closed during the winter, but why not see just how high I could go past the road closed gates? Last minute detours like this typically lead to some of the best rides, and this was no exception.
After finishing up in the Sierras I headed toward Death Valley to set up camp and get ready for a re-match with Titus the following day. As it turned out, I had no idea, but the road had flooded a few days prior with the first significant rain that area had seen in almost a year, and the nature of the narrow canyon meant that some sections had essentially turned into a dry river bed with a few inches of soft “debris” overtop that made riding up steep grades on skinnies a bit of a challenge. It only delayed the inevitable though, as I eventually squirmed my way to the top and barreled down a bit of classic Death Valley washboard to the main road. It was absolutely one of the toughest stretches of a ride that I’ve ever done.
Without a head light (channeling my inner Sean Talkington), I had to haul ass back over the range before the fast and smooth 5000+ foot drop into the valley from Daylight Pass. A handful of times per year I’m lucky enough to get those moments when everything seems to come together on a ride, but nothing touches the moment I crested the final hill and a full nuke sky lit up that descent to finish off a ride I’d spent two years dreaming about.