Friday, March 27, 2015

Death Valley: Thimble Peak, 6,381' and Titus Canyon 4WD Road

Essence: Two great pleasures, one adventure. Titus Canyon Road penetrates the greater Amargosa Range, crests the Grapevine Mountains, slices through a narrow, water-scoured gash, and terminates on the floor of Death Valley. Mid-way along the road, stop to climb Thimble Peak. A neglected treasure, it is a half-day hike with a fun scramble up the summit block and sterling views over the distance. Pyramidal and chaotic, the peak is less daunting than it appears from afar.

Thimble Peak is a compelling prominence in the Grapevine Mountains. It is far left in this image shot from the campground at Stovepipe Wells.

Travel: Titus Canyon Road is 27 miles, one-way east to west. It goes over Red Pass in the Grapevine Mountains and plunges to the Death Valley flats through the Titus Canyon narrows. Driving directions for the 4WD adventure and Thimble Peak trailhead follow. Inquire about varying road conditions at the visitor center. While 4WD with high clearance is recommended, the road is often graded so well 2WD vehicles with moderate clearance and sturdy tires plow through without trouble. Climbing Thimble commits you to the entire stretch.
Thimble Peak Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.5 miles; 1,750 feet of climbing
Hiking Time: 2:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Well-established social trail; navigation easy; One Class 3 scramble with moderate exposure; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Thimble Peak, CA-NV 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated #221, Death Valley National Park
Reference: For a definitive discussion of historic mining operations in the ghost town of Leadfield and geology along the Titus Canyon Road, consult: Hiking Death Valley: A guide to its natural wonders and mining past, Michel Digonnet, 2007.
Date Hiked: March 27, 2015
Quote: The limitless and uncrowded spaces, the vibrant blue light of spring mornings, the austere beauty of the desert ranges, the ancient rocks distorted behind shimmering heat waves, all conspire to form a primordial, irresistible landscape. I, like many others before me, fell in love with it. Michel Digonnet

Titus Canyon Road is noted with a blue line. The black-line route is the hike to Thimble Peak. From Red Pass TH 5,280', hike south to Point 6,120'. Descend southwest and upon reaching the saddle between the two peaks, mount the northeast ridge of Thimble. Return as you came.

Titus Canyon Road to Thimble Peak Trailhead: From Hells Gate at the junction of Daylight Pass Road and Beatty Cut-Off Road, drive northeast toward Beatty, Nevada on State Route 374. Crest Daylight Pass at 6.2 miles. Turn left onto Titus Canyon Road at 13.3 miles. Zero-out your trip meter and drive west across the flat Amargosa Desert on mild washboard.

At 1.9 miles cross the park boundary. The road transitions to one-way and takes direct aim at the Amargosa Range. In spring, flowers confine the narrow road. Roughly 1,000 plant species live in the park in fantastically diverse biozones. Climbing gradually, the track dodges a principle rock outcrop on its left, shown, and penetrates the east side of the mountains.

At 9.7 miles, crown the first of two passes. Thimble Peak presents itself, left in this image.

At the bottom of the smooth descent cross Titanothere Canyon. Revel in the remarkably engineered switchbacks to Red Pass, named for the mudstone exposed there. An unmistakable place at 12.6 miles, this is the trailhead for Thimble Peak. Park in a limited pull-out, a squeeze for three vehicles.

Thimble Peak Route: From Red Pass TH 5,280', shown, a well-established social trail goes directly up the ridge to the southwest. The initial pitch is abrupt but footing is good. (THW, photo)

A hiker is approaching a small saddle at 0.3 mile, 5,685 feet. To the west, the Mount Whitney group on the Sierra Crest will startle. Notice the trail weaving through scattered shrubs on its way to the next rise.

For the navigation wary, at 0.6 mile, Thimble Peak appears and remains in the view corridor. Below, the trail, crafted by a ridge purist, can be seen on its upward way to Pt. 6,120'.

At 1.1 miles, top Thimble's subsidiary peak, Pt. 6,120'. Titanothere Canyon is confined below its eastern flanks. Beguiling Corkscrew Peak rises higher, but not for long.

Locate the trail while it holds to a rounded southwest ridge, giving up over 300 feet on its way to Saddle 5,796' at 1.4 miles. The peak trail is a slithering snake whose serpentine form takes the edge off the steepness. Looking at the image below, taken from Pt. 6,120', the route skirts the cliff mass to its right while making for the northeast ridge at the horizon.

From a distance, the summit block looks almost vertical. The approach over, trust the mountain and go straight up the rock. The final punch is not as steep as it appears.

In the image below, my climbing companion is executing the low Class 3 move. The exposure is moderate but the holds are good and the limey rock is covered in sticky points. The exposure is mild from here to the crest.

Summit Thimble Peak at 1.75 miles. Before you get lost in reverie over the killer view, analyze your immediate surroundings. The surprisingly generous zenith has one utterly abrupt edge; tumbling 2,000 feet into Titanothere Canyon would be catastrophic. Locate a benchmark placed in 1949. It is impossible to gather in the wildness of this aerie--the prismatic color, the ragged and tortured rock, the silky smooth valley. Look down on nearby Corkscrew Peak with its namesake spiraling rock bands. Travel with your eyes across the immensity and ascend Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, elevation 11,084 feet. (THW, photo)

Soar as far as your eye can see out west to the tallest mountain in the lower 48, and then float down down down to the lowest valley 282 feet below sea level. (THW, photo)

Return as you came, revisiting humble Pt. 6,120'.

Titus Canyon Road to Scotty's Castle Road: Leaving Red Pass, the westward track switchbacks steeply around sharp corners on an excellent surface, dropping nearly 800 feet into an entrenched valley.

The ghost town of Leadfield is at 15.7 miles, marked by a cluster of buildings hurriedly erected in 1924. Alas, the gleaming promise of silver and the earthy riches of lead quickly faded; in 1927, the post office closed and the town folded.

Past Leadfield enter the first set of narrows scoured out by water gathered from Red Pass and the greater Grapevine Mountains. Titus Canyon proper joins forces from the right just past the squeeze.

The gulch widens to reveal Klare Spring at 18.4 miles. Acknowledging this life gift, a boulder just off the road is covered in petroglyphs: bighorn sheep, anthropomorphs, a sun image, linked circles, and geometrics.

Stoney chaos mesmerizes. Rock created in wildly different circumstances and epochs are smashed together in a brilliant tapestry. Layers tilt 70 degrees. High walls are infused with shining quartzite, saffron shale, and brooding, spent volcanics.

Titus is one of the rare canyons in Death Valley that bifurcates a mountain range successfully. While it seems incongruous in this driest of all deserts, the mightiest operational force is water. At 22.7 miles, enter sinuous limestone and dolomite smooth-walled narrows. It feels downright other-worldly to squeeze through the passageway not much wider than our vehicle.

Transit between polished mosaics. According to Digonnet, these are breccias composed of blocks of limestone cemented with white calcite.

At 24.2 miles, the canyon terminates at the base of the Grapevine Mountains, its job complete. There is a large parking lot at this opening. People who do not wish to drive the entire 4WD stretch can experience the best of the narrows by walking up-canyon from here.

Reach Scotty's Castle Road at 27 miles. Turn left to resupply fuel and water.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent! Thank you for the details and amazing photos