Before the Backpack
Thimble Peak and Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley
Friday, April 2
As mentioned in the introduction, we arrived in Las Vegas a few days before our backpack was to start, and a day before Jenn's longtime friends Cathy and Mike arrived. We had decided to explore Death Valley 'for a day' (more accurately, a 22-hour period), and I had carefully planned a rough circular loop that was big on seeing a lot of different Death Valley sights and small on wasting time.
Start of Titus Canyon Road
First off on that loop was a drive along a somewhat obscure but very scenic road that led into the northeast quadrant of the park. Known as the Titus Canyon Road, it offers rough backway access from near the town of Beatty, Nevada to a point in Death Valley National Park near Scottie's Castle. Along the way the road crosses two fairly high passes in the desolate but scenic Grapevine Mountains, runs past an old ghost town, and ends with what can best be described as a slot canyon route for cars -- a section of road one lane wide that twists and turns in the bottom of a very narrow canyon. Titus Canyon Road is also one-way from east to west, so if we were going to see this road and the sights along it, it made sense to do it now as we headed west into the park.
Titus Canyon Road
In addition to the scenic beauty that came with driving along the road, I wanted to include a short hike with the day's activities. I'd located the perfect little peak, not far from the height of land along the road, that we could climb. The route to climb the peak (called Thimble Peak) was short but fairly dramatic, combining the desirable elements of a quick completion time, great scenery, and a bit of fun scrambling.
Bob coolly observes
We arrived at the start of the Titus Canyon road right around 4pm. We immediately set off along the initial ruler-straight and dusty section of road, gradually gaining elevation with each passing mile. Eventually the road started to wander between a few jagged peaks, some crumbly layered rock, some smooth slickrock-looking stuff (couldn't tell if it was igneous or sedimentary, really). Eventually the road wound its way up to White Pass - the first of the two passes along the road, and by now we were fully into the mountainous desert terrain of the Grapevine Mountains.
All in all, a lot to pack into a single afternoon. But try we did.
Down the dirt road went, descending into the upper reaches of Titanothere Canyon, winding around in tight turns and ups and downs. The road was a little washboardy and sprinkled with some coarse gravel, but all in all not difficult to navigate. The road soon started to climb up in steep switchbacks to a narrow pass in some very red, earthy ground. We had reached Red Pass - the highest point along the road and the start point for our quick hike up Thimble Peak. It was 5pm. We had two hours and nine minutes before sundown. Not a lot of time to climb a peak!
Thimble Peak is a pointy spire of a peak among many in the Grapevine Mountains. It, along with the others, forms the north-east barrier of Death Valley. Thimble Peak is a decently high peak - over 6,300 feet high - as high as Mount Washington on the east coast, and very high when you consider it overlooks the sea-level flats of Death Valley less than five miles away.
Given our limited timeframe, we were fortunately able to start from the height of Red Pass, at an elevation of around 5,300 feet. Additionally, the distance from the pass to the peak is quite short - perhaps a little over a mile and a half one way (about 2.7 km). All parameters were possible for a quick hiking pace to achieve within the two hours we had before sundown. There wasn't any time to waste, though!
There's no official trail from Red Pass to Thimble Peak, although a faint use-path has formed. Essentially the path follows the crest of the ridge that rises up to the south-west of the pass. It started off steeply, causing us to quickly work up a good sweat, and also providing a spectacular view back down to Red Pass and the twisty turns of the Titus Canyon road winding up to it and down from it. The stark, multi-toned tan and chocolate hues of the rugged Grapevine Mountains stretched all around us. A fine start!
After a short but quite steep climb, the ridge turns south and levels off for a while, providing a breather. From here we got our first view of Thimble peak, perhaps only a mile away. It looks like a steep and non-trivial rugged knob from this angle, making the near-side climb we would be doing look like a bit of an exposed rock climb. I'd had a very close look at the trip reports for this trip, though, and knew that this was mostly a trick of foreshortening - the climb was apparently mostly a walk-up with a touch of class 3 in spots.
Our route continued to follow the ridge southward, climbing another steeper section before topping out at a high point. From here we had an unfettered and close up view of Thimble Peak. It looked like a fun climb, perhaps including a bit of exposure for spice. A steep, precipitous south-east face, descending thousands of feet into Titanothere Canyon, made this angle of the peak look all the more dramatic. The little highpoint we were on also provided great views south into Death Valley proper, which we could now see for the first time. In fact, the views from this point are pretty much the same as those on top of Thimble, but with less effort (and less fun).
Although Thimble Peak was now practically a stone's throw from us, we had to first give up nearly half of the 800 feet we had just gained. We decided that on the way back we might try and skirt this sub-peak in order to avoid that.
Our route up the actual knob of Thimble Peak's summit pretty much followed the crest of the north-east ridge. As we climbed, we moved to the right to avoid anything that was a little too cliffy. There's a decent use path up the entire ridge. Near the top were the sections of 3rd-class scrambling, but they were no more than a hand-hold or two. There is a bit of airiness in spots, what with that multi-thousand foot steep dropoff to our left, but as predicted by the reports I'd read, nothing too bad at all if you have a decent head for heights. Before we knew it, we popped out onto the small little knob that was the summit. It's got a 1949 USGS servey marker from the inset right into the rock, so there' was no doubt that we were here.