Rhyolite Ghost Town and Titus Canyon

Furnace Creek, CA

On Tuesday we drove north for about 40 miles to explore a Jeep road that goes through a scenic canyon.  But first we stopped for a brief visit at a classic mining ghost town.

The town of Rhyolite began in early 1905 as one of several mining camps that sprang up after a prospecting discovery in the surrounding hills.  During an ensuing gold rush, thousands of gold-seekers, developers, miners, and service providers flocked to the area.  A wealthy industrialist bought the nearby mine in 1906 and invested heavily in infrastructure, including piped water, electric lines and railroad transportation, that served the town as well as the mine.  By 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, an opera house, and a stock exchange.  It also had 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, many brothels, 19 lodging houses, 16 restaurants, half a dozen barbers, a public bath house, and a weekly newspaper, the Rhyolite Herald.  Four daily stage coaches connected Rhyolite with Goldfield, 60 miles to the north.  Published estimates of the town’s peak population vary widely, but most sources generally place it in a range between 3,500 and 5,000 in 1907–08.

Rhyolite declined almost as rapidly as it rose.  After the richest ore was exhausted, production fell.  The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the financial panic of 1907 made it more difficult to raise development capital.  In 1908, investors in the mine, concerned that it was overvalued, ordered an independent study.  When the study’s findings proved unfavorable, the company’s stock value crashed, further restricting funding.  By the end of 1910, the mine was operating at a loss, and it closed in 1911.  By this time, many out-of-work miners had moved elsewhere, and Rhyolite’s population dropped well below 1,000.  By 1920, it was close to zero.

The John Cook Bank

The Cook Bank in 1908

The rail station

The best maintained structure in the town today is Mr. Kelly’s Bottle House.  The house was built in 1905 using the many bottles available from the 53 saloons located in Rhyolite.  Mr. Kelly never did live in the house.  He raffled it off with tickets selling for $5.00.  The Bennet family won the drawing and lived in the Bottle House until 1914.

Just outside of Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum.  The museum was closed but we enjoyed the sculptures around the small building by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski.  Szukalski wrapped live models in fabric soaked in wet plaster and posed them.  When the plaster set, the model was slipped out leaving the rigid shroud.  The shroud was then coated with fiberglass making it imperious to weather.

Ghost Rider

The Last Supper

After our visit to Rhyolite, we drove back down the highway a few miles and turned on to a narrow, dirt road leading to Titus Canyon.  This 27 mile long road is one way for 24 miles as it winds up through the Grapevine Mountains before ending with a drive through narrow Titus Canyon.

Heading to the mountains in the distance

The road through the mountains

About half way down the road you come to another ghost town, the remains of the town of Leadfield.

Below Leadfield the road goes into the narrow Titus Canyon.  We removed the roof panels of the Jeep to better enjoy the views above us.

There was a small spring along the road where early inhabitants in the area came to hunt the Big Horn Sheep that came to drink.  They left their artwork along some of the large rocks.

The final two miles of the one-way section of the road goes through a beautiful canyon with towering walls above us.  A slot for cars!

The one-way part of the Titus Canyon Road ends in a parking area where there is a trailhead to Fall Canyon.  The remaining three miles is a two way road, allowing vehicles that are not high clearance to get to the trailhead without coming down through Titus Canyon.  A display sign there has a picture of a 1920s-era car with the driver posing for the camera while in the canyon.

At the trailhead we parked the Jeep, grabbed our packs, and headed up the trail to explore Fall Canyon.  This three and a half  mile (one way) hike goes up a canyon ending at a steep, dry waterfall.  It was a challenging hike as the floor of the canyon is all loose rock, making footing unstable while constantly climbing.  But we enjoyed the colors of the rocks along the walls of the canyon soaring above us.

We had to hustle a bit to get out of the canyon before dark.  The sun is setting here at around 4:40 PM and, since there are no buildings within many miles, it gets really dark very quickly.  But we made it out with ease, ending a long but exciting day.

Our time here in Death Valley  is coming down to a final couple of days, but we still have a couple of adventures planned.  More on those later . . .

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23 Responses to Rhyolite Ghost Town and Titus Canyon

  1. Reading your exciting drive through the canyon reminded me of our own excitement as we drove the rental jeep through there.I can feel Pam’s exuberance once you reached the top and you faced the multicolored hills as you drove down.
    Did you try driving away from the RV park lights at night just to see how dark it is there and gaze at the stars that come alive?

  2. Lindsay says:

    Awesome day … we are taking it easy and enjoying some R&R! More hiking when we get to Palm Desert on Friday/Saturday/Sunday before we head home on Monday 😕 #HappyTravels

  3. libertatemamo says:

    Have wanted to see Ryolite for years and never been. Loooove those ghost sculptures. Had no idea they existed out there.

  4. Erin says:

    Those ghostly statues are fitting with your theme of visiting ghost towns and deserted canyons.

  5. Those sculptures are really neat! Looks like a great day full of adventure and variety.

  6. Ingrid says:

    Now I’m convinced more than ever to return to Death Valley. You’ve definitely discovered some very cool hidden gems during your stay. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. LuAnn says:

    I haven’t seen such interesting photos of a ghost town since our time in Bodie. Love the Ghost Rider and the Last Supper, as well as the Bottle House. That slot canyon for your jeep was really cool!

  8. Sherry says:

    Oh the places you go is right. What a shame that a ready made town with everything necessary couldn’t sustain itself somehow. Very interesting sculptures and artistic method. I’m really sorry you didn’t get to see the museum. The dirt road almost looks like non 4WD vehicles could do it. Really beautiful drive and hike. The thought of seriously really dark dark and all the stars you can see just makes me yearn. You really do show me such interesting places. Thanks so much!

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Sherry:) Glad you were along for our journey! Most of the Titus Canyon road could be driven by any vehicle but the area going up and through Red Pass needed at least high clearance but no four wheel drive.

  9. heyduke50 says:

    I think we did almost the same thing you wrote about in your blog one day we were in Death Valley… The slot canyon for cars was a great drive too

  10. pmbweaver says:

    We couldn’t find Goldwell Open Air Museum. I was so upset. I wanted to see those sculptures!

    Egads…that has to be a record for the shortest lived town in America.

    WOW…couldn’t you just squeeze one more thing in that day? We do love days like this one. A little of everything on what looks like a gorgeous day.

  11. Laurel says:

    What a fun and interesting day! We visited Rhyolite several years ago and found it fascinating and slightly bizarre. Glad to see those sculptures are holding up so well! I hope the beautiful mosaic outdoor sofa is still there. (And how about the enormous pink cinderblock nude??) Your photo of the colorful mountains on the way to Leadfield is especially beautiful.

    • placestheygo says:

      Laurel, the sofa is still there and in great shape. The pink cinderblock statue is also doing well. We had to limit our photos since John was trying to do the day in one blog.

  12. Suzanne says:

    That early day recycler was ahead of his time in that bottle house! LOVE that Titus Canyon! I will add that to the list when I get back to DV.

  13. raviolikid says:

    Hi, guys! I loved your post about Rhyolite and Titus Canyon. I did that trip last month and was I am in the process of writing a post for my blog. I would like to use a few of your pictures, which turned out better than mine. Would that be all right? If it is, how should I credit them? List your blog? I hope you don’t mind. I am going to subscribe. It sounds like I can learn a few things from you.

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