The walls of the canyon rose a hundred feet overhead, slicing serpentine patterns in the sandstone. My son and I scrambled over boulders and up rocky outcroppings as the canyon narrowed to shoulder width. We snaked ahead for a hundred yards until the route went vertical – straight up the path of a dormant waterfall.
This is the Ladder Canyon Trail.
This amazing and little-known trek winds its way up, down and through a “slot canyon:” A narrow chasm cut into the rock by millions of years of erosion. If I didn’t know better, I might have thought that we were in Moab, Utah. Fortunately, we were only 100 miles east of Los Angeles in the Mecca Hills, about an hour from Southern California desert destinations such as Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, the Salton Sea and Anza Borrego.
Ladder Canyon gets its name from the series of ladders that must be scaled to complete the hike. At regular intervals, the canyon steps up 10 to 20 feet, making forward progress extremely difficult. Fortunately, aluminum extension ladders have been installed by a local hiking club to help hikers negotiate the climb. The ladders are worn and rickety, which only adds to the adventure.
The trail is located within the Mecca Hills Wilderness area, which is part of Riverside County and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area encompasses more than 26,000 acres of open space. According to the BLM, “The Mecca Hills provides challenging recreational opportunities and extraordinary opportunities for solitude.” It is generally bounded on the north by Interstate 10, the south by the Salton Sea and the west by State Route 86.
The Ladder Canyon hike begins at the end of Painted Canyon Road, where there is a dirt parking lot. From there, the trail heads northeasterly up Painted Canyon. In a quarter mile, there is a BLM marker indicating the entrance to ladder canyon on the left. There will be about 50 yards of boulder scrambling, at which point you reach the first ladder. From there, the trail narrows into a slot canyon for the next mile or so. The canyon walls begin to widen on the upper portion of the trail. At that point, you can follow the stone arrows and continue up the canyon or you can turn around and descend ladder canyon in the opposite direction.
We completed this hike on a Saturday afternoon in February. On this particular trip, we chose to ascend ladder canyon for about 2 miles until the trail ended. We then headed east and dropped down into Painted Canyon for the return trip back to the trailhead. The total length of the loop was about 5 miles and took 2 ½ hours to complete. We found it to be a unique day hike and one of the most scenic treks we’ve ever taken in Southern California.
Good to Know
- Ladder Canyon is suitable for families with older kids and teens that are experienced hikers.
- Spring and fall are the ideal seasons to hike Ladder Canyon. This hike should not be attempted during summer when temperatures in the desert can reach 120 °F and make the trip very dangerous.
- Winter is also an option, but be sure to check the weather to ensure that there are no storms in the forecast. Ladder Canyon is a watercourse and is subject to flash floods when it rains.
- This hike will take between 3 and 4 hours to complete, so you will need to carry at least 2 liters of water per person. Be sure to pack some food for emergencies in case you get lost.
- Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete the loop so you don’t get stuck in the desert after dark.
- You will be climbing ladders and walking through rough terrain, so be sure to wear a good pair of hiking boots. It is also a good idea to carry a GPS or trail map.
- If you are looking for solitude, go on a weekday. On the weekends, the area gets a fair amount of visitors.
- Families can overnight at the Palm Desert Marriott, only 20 minutes away.
- Getting There: The Ladder Canyon Trailhead, head east on Interstate 10 until you reach the Coachella Valley. Take State Route 86 south towards Brawley for about 10 miles and then make a left turn on 62nd Avenue. Continue 2.2 miles until you reach Johnson Street and turn right. Continue on Johnson Street for 2.0 miles until you reach Painted Canyon Road on the left. Turn left on Painted Canyon Road and continue for approximately 4 miles until it ends. There is a dirt parking lot at the trailhead and a kiosk marks the beginning of the hike. Painted Canyon Road is unpaved, so proceed with caution. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, however, the road is passable in a two-wheel drive vehicle if you drive carefully.
by Bob Kelsoe, May 2018
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