Death Valley: Titus Canyon Road

Rushing for the photo before the winter temperature drops
Rushing for the photo before the winter temperature drops

On a March afternoon outside Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Magellan and I waited for just a few minutes for the thermometer to register 100° Fahrenheit. This year on an August afternoon Furnace Creek truly lived up to its name when the mercury read a fiery 130° Fahrenheit (54.4° Celsius), the hottest reliably measured temperature in recorded history on Earth. Why would anyone visit this scorching-hot national park with its ominous names, killer heat and blistered desert landscape? 

Initially, for gold.

A group of ‘49ers got lost here in the Mojave Desert in the winter of 1849-1850. After one man died, they all feared it would be their graveyard. Legend has it that after climbing over the Panamint Mountains one of the men turned, looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Magellan and I credit Russ Norstrand for firing up our interest in Death Valley, the canyon hiking, backcountry camping, 600-million-year-old geology and scenic drives—of which the most popular, Titus Canyon Road, received its name from a death story.

Remember our blog about Rhyolite, Nevada? Titus Canyon Road starts a few miles south of there, a one-way east-to-west 4×4 dirt road, a logical way for us to return to Death Valley.

But first I want to tell you about another death, the one that gave Titus Canyon its name.

In 1905 Edgar Morris Titus, a 29-year-old engineer, and his brother-in-law Earle Weller left the Colorado Rockies to seek their fortunes in Rhyolite. Lured further west in search of gold and silver, they and John Mullan left Rhyolite, taking the wrong fork up a deep canyon in the Grapevine Mountains of Death Valley toward Red Pass.

It was June 26 and water was scarce. They found barely a trickle.

Titus took a few burros and went in search of water, leaving the other two behind. The next morning Titus hadn’t returned, so Weller set out to find him.

A few days later searchers reached Mullan, withering, alone in the summer heat, near death. Continuing to look for Titus and Weller they found a note: “Hurry on! I’m going down to investigate the spring. – Titus.”

On July 1 three bodies were found, naked, so delirious from thirst they’d flung off their clothes, two of them dead. The third, an aging prospector who tried to save Titus and Weller, was barely alive, unable to speak and died soon after. Although all three were buried here, their gravesites were never found. Mullan recovered but it’s said that 32 other people died that summer in Death Valley. (The NPS advises not to travel on Titus Canyon Road in the summer.)

It took another two decades before Titus Canyon had a road suitable for automobiles. The man who built it, Charles C. Julian, also came to a tragic end.

Julian was president of Western Lead Mines, the main company exploring the Red Pass area for lead and copper. In 1925 he had the epic Titus Canyon Road built at an estimated cost of $60,000. This wasn’t easy. An engineering marvel at the time, the road starts at what’s now Nevada Route 374 at 3,400 ft, climbs for 15 miles up through the Grapevine Mountains to Red Pass at 5,200 ft and steps down to Leadfield at 4,000 ft.

A promoter, Julian hired train cars to bring investors and buyers, politicians and musicians from around the country to Beatty, Nevada, and then rented 94 cars to bring them on this arduous road for a private luncheon—for more than 1,000 people! More than 1,700 lots were offered for sale. Excitement heated up, more mining companies staked claims, a 400-ton concentration plant and a 40-room hotel were planned and in January 1926 the town of Leadfield was established. A newspaper and post office followed. Shares in Western Lead Mines soared from $0.10 to $3.30.

As quickly as it boomed, Leadfield fell. (Like a lead balloon?) For two reasons. In October the mother lode they hoped to find in the main tunnel assayed poorly, low-grade ore, unprofitable. Secondly, Julian’s empire fell apart when trading in his holding company was halted, leading to a domino effect of financial ruin in Leadfield.

The charges against him didn’t hold but it was too late. Several years later Julian was indicted for mail fraud. He jumped bail and fled to Shanghai, where he committed suicide at the age of forty.

In 1935 a government report recommended leaving Titus Canyon Road in its primitive state.

Even if the Titus Canyon road should be oiled or otherwise improved, there is grave danger of motorists being trapped in the bottom of the gorge by flood waters released by the not infrequent mountain thunder storms…In Titus Canyon, however, there would be no possibility of saving the car, and some places not even a chance for a man to climb the walls.

With a stop at Leadfield, it only took us two hours to drive Titus Canyon Road, a marvel even today for Magellan the engineer. So much drama. Uplifted canyon walls in colours from green to maroon soaring 200 feet into the air squeeze to rock walls less than 20 feet apart, shutting out the afternoon sun. Rocky, tight curves with sharp drop-offs tamper to wide flat stretches of smooth gravel. From Leadfield the road descends steeply to sea level, ending a few miles north of the junction to Stovepipe Wells.

A helpful ranger suggested we drive up Mud Canyon and camp near Hells Gate, another demonic name with a story. In 1905 a mule driver said that when his animals were leaving the cool of the canyon and entering the inferno of the buttes they became completely startled, wildly shaking their heads at the sudden, searing heat. “They thought they had stuck their noses through the gates of hell,” the teamster is reported to have exclaimed.

Totally different from Titus, Mud Canyon has low, rounded hills. We walked for an hour on two separate trails but both had chokeholds impassable for jubilados—Death Valley wasn’t going to claim us. Besides, we had enchiladas and a bottle of Brickhouse Gamay Noir 2015 to look forward to for dinner—a toast to natural beauty, Titus and Julian.


Here is one account of Titus and Weller’s ill-fated trip across the canyon.

For the full story of Charles C. Julian (the scapegoat of Leadfield’s downfall) read the National Park Service’s history.

Here’s a geologist’s dream site about Marble Canyon  and a  site for more about the geology of Titus Canyon.

The 1935 government report for leaving Titus Canyon Road as is.

4 Responses

  1. Does not look like a hospitable environment for man or beast.
    Interesting to look at, and very scenic but as the mining bust shows, not worthy of investing time nor money.
    Quite the Death inspired history, heat of 100 F is well above my threshold for staying alive, I agree with the mules, takes ones breath away just thinking about It.
    Definitely an adventure in those vertical Canyon walls.
    I think the road less travelled, indeed.

    1. As they say in Saskatchewan, “It’s a dry cold,” Death Valley is a dry heat so 100 F was actually bearable. Like SK, the constant wind was cooling, from a light breeze to tent-ripper velocity.

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