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HIKING

A Tortuous History at Death Valley

April 25, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

In Titus Canyon, gray and white cliffs, red and green hills, and fractured and contorted rocks point to the tremendous geologic forces that shaped the land comprising Death Valley National Monument.

In Death Valley, the forces of the earth are exposed to view with dramatic clarity: a sudden fault and a sink became a lake. The water evaporated, leaving behind borax and above all, fantastic scenery.

Although Death Valley is called a valley, in actuality it is not. Valleys are carved by rivers. Death Valley is what geologists call a graben, where a block of the earth's crust has dropped down along fault lines in relation to its mountain walls.

(Incidentally, while Death Valley's name is likely to remain intact, legislation now before Congress--called the California Desert Protection Bill--would officially change the name of the national monument to Death Valley National Park.)

Titus Canyon offers the hiker--and the motorist (more about vehicles in a moment)--a chance to explore one of Death Valley's scenic gems. Hikers enter a twisting narrows, where walls rise 500 feet and are only 15-40 feet apart. The canyon's upper walls are rugged, its lower ones smoothed by water-borne gravel.

The canyon is named for Morris Titus, who, in 1906, left the Nevada boom town of Rhyolite, near the California border (now a historic ghost town), with a prospecting party. While the prospectors were camped in the canyon, water supplies dwindled. Titus left in search of water and help, but was never seen again.

Winding through the canyon is 28-mile-long Titus Canyon Road, a narrow, one-way dirt road. The park service suggests using four-wheel-drive, though it is open to two-wheel-drive vehicles with good ground clearance. Check on current road conditions at the park visitor center in Furnace Creek. Geology buffs will want to pick up a copy of the "Titus Canyon Road Guide" at the visitor center.

Figure two to three hours for the drive, which takes you through a variety of desert environments. A historic highlight en route is a stop at the ghost town of Leadfield. The town boomed in 1925 due to the slick efforts of a promoter who controlled a very low-grade deposit of lead ore. Soon a town was built in the narrow canyon; its population quickly swelled to 300. A year later the town was empty.

Today, only a shack or two along with some crumbling foundations mark Leadfield, but the road that serviced the mines and miners remains behind, beckoning to those who prospect for scenery.

To reach the start of the one-way Titus Canyon Road: From California 190, a few miles from Stovepipe Wells, head northeast on California 374 toward Beatty, Nev., about 25 miles away. About four miles short of Beatty is the signed turnoff for Titus Canyon.

You don't have to drive the 28-mile road to hike Titus Canyon. The very lower part of the road is two-way and takes you to the trail head. From the junction of highways 374 and 190, you'll head north 14 miles on the latter highway (the road to Scotty's Castle), then 14 more to Titus Canyon Road.

Though, in theory, vehicles and hikers shouldn't be sharing thoroughfares, in practice, in Titus Canyon at least, the arrangement seems to work out just fine. Those motorists who brave Titus Canyon are generally a courteous lot, and hikers can hear them coming from a long way off, thus avoiding potential mishaps.

From the trail head, it's moderate uphill walking along the gravel floor of the canyon. As you hike along, you'll marvel at the awesome folding and faulting of the canyon's rock walls.

If you just want to marvel at the rock show, continue a couple of miles up the canyon and turn around.

More gung-ho hikers will keep trekking up Titus Canyon, which widens a bit. Nearly six miles out is Klare Spring, a water hole occasionally visited by a band of bighorn sheep.

Just beyond the spring is a wildly contorted section of canyon wall. Try to determine which end of the rock formation is up, then head back down Titus Canyon to the trail head.

Hike with John McKinney's "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" ($16.95). Send check or money order to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Dept. 1, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Death Valley National Monument Where: Death Valley National Monument. Distance: In narrow part of canyon, 4-5 miles round trip; to Klare Spring 12 miles round trip. Terrain: Dramatic, high-walled canyon. Highlights: One of the most scenic canyons in Death Valley; a geologic wonder. Degree of difficulty: Moderate. Precautions: Get an early start, prepare for high temperatures, carry plenty of water. For more information: Contact Superintendent, Death Valley National Monument, Death Valley, Calif. 92328, (619) 786-2331.

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