Located in the Mecca Hills Wilderness near the Salton Sea, this popular 5-mile loop hike through painted canyons, ancient faults, and deep slots requires rock scrambling, ladder climbing, and some minor rappels.
The Mecca Hills are located approximately 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs. From there, take the Hwy 111 exit off of I-10 near Indio, head southeast on Hwy 111 and go left at 66th Avenue, which eventually turns into Box Canyon Road. After driving 4.5 miles you’ll cross the Coachella Canal. A quarter of a mile later turn left onto Painted Canyon Road and drive another 4.7 miles until it dead ends at the parking area. Keep in mind that Painted Canyon Road is a well maintained dirt road that should be passable in most vehicles, though not this one, which is why we left it back in Palm Springs.
Don’t venture too far off Painted Canyon Road without a 4WD or you may end up getting stuck like I did during my first trip to Ladder Canyon back in 2014. Also, break-ins have been reported in the parking lot, so make sure to to hide or take any valuables with you before heading out on your hike.
For the first quarter mile, you’ll be hiking in scenic Big Painted Canyon, where layers of eroded rock, some over 600 million years old, have been pushed up and overturned by the activity of the San Andreas Fault system.
As with any remote desert area, don’t forget to bring plenty of water, some snacks, a map and a GPS unit (if possible). Summers are extremely hot and it’s easy to get disoriented inside the maze of canyons within this section of the Mecca Hills Wilderness. Discover more tips on how to stay safe while hiking in the desert by visiting the Desert Sheriff’s Search and Rescue (DSSAR) website.
After about 1/4 of a mile, the entrance to Ladder Canyon will be on your left.
A large arrow made from rocks will point you in the right direction.
A short scramble leads to a magnificent slot canyon.
The Mecca Hills Wilderness Area is managed by the BLM but they aren’t the ones who provide or maintain the ropes and ladders found within these canyons.
Local hiking groups have taken on that responsibility and while they’ve done a great job, you should always double check to make sure they’re safe before putting your full weight on them.
The views along the way are spectacular.
Post ladder group shot.
Exiting the slots.
Follow the cairns along the trail as you make your way up to the top.
Once there, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of the Salton Sea and the incredible formations that make up the surrounding Mecca Hills Wilderness Area.
Finding the correct route to take in order to get back to the parking area can get a little confusing, that’s why you should always have a map on hand to help guide the way.
There are numerous cairns, arrows and rock piles in this section of the hike and while they all may lead to somewhere it’s up to each individual to determine which route is best for them. Do your own research prior to doing this hike. Taking the wrong route or not having the proper provisions can easily turn a hike like this into dangerous situation.
We headed southwest down a trail that took us towards Little Painted Canyon.
The Mecca Hills are located in the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert, where ocotillo thrive. Ocotillo is not a true cactus. For much of the year, the plant appears to be an arrangement of large spiny dead sticks (as seen here), although closer examination reveals that the stems are partly green. With rainfall, the plant quickly becomes lush with small, ovate leaves, which may remain for weeks or even months.
The heavily worn trail made this segment of our hike easy to follow.
Before long, we found ourselves back in another canyon.
Unfortunately, someone decided to add their own contribution to Little Painted Canyon. Please don’t do this!
A sad cairn emoji said it all.
This section of the hike involves making your way down several knotted ropes. Each one taking you deeper into the slots of Little Painted Canyon.
Make sure to test each and everyone of them before making your way down.
The canyon is distinguished by sandy washes sprinkled with Palo Verde, Ironwood, and Smoke Trees.
The ropes aren’t that difficult but if you’re afraid of heights you might want to think twice about taking this particular route back.
After crawling, scrambling, and climbing…
…a little stretching sure felt good.