Ladder Canyon


By: Erik Siering


Annie Kramer and I needed an easy Christmas Day trip after celebrating. Christmas Eve at my parents' home in Rancho Mirage. I found some sketchy driving directions to Painted Canyon in Mecca Hills. So off -we drove before dawn. Little did we know we would inadvertently do the famously fun Ladder Canyon Trail, only in reverse! This slot canyon features climbing ladders through narrow gorges. I later -found good descriptions of hiking in. Painted Canyon in Gary Craig's DPS trip report (Sage, 5 Dec 1998), and Lynne Foster's Sierra Club guidebook, "Adventuring in the California Desert."

We took SR 111 about 15 miles south of Indio, and turned east four miles on Hwy 195 (aka 66th Ave or Box Canyon Rd) in Mecca to Painted Canyon Road. This excellently graded, 2wd dirt road led north through extensive eroded and incised sedimentary badlands formations to a road's end turnaround in 4.7 miles. This is the Mecca Hills Recreation Area, nearly 44,000 acres of undeveloped desert.

The exposed rock layers of colorful high-walled Painted Canyon reveal the geological folding and faulting activity on the coincident San Andreas Fault. The hues of pink, red, gray, brown, and green are particularly pronounced in the afternoon sun. There is abundant Cat Claw, Palo Verde and Smoke Trees.

Mecca Hills (aka Mud Hills) has been the on-location site of many Hollywood films, including: The Professionals (1966); The Rare Breed (1966); The Marauders (1955); The Painted Stallion (1937); and Picture of the Whistling Skull (1937).

Annie and I hiked straight up the broad sandy wash from the road's end (right would have led us directly to Ladder Canyon). We explored a couple of narrow slot canyons en route. These constricted to delightful squeeze and crawl spaces, but eventually ended in sheer headwalls. In three miles, after a small dry waterfall, the canyon broadened out to a flat. We exited east' to the ridgeline, where we came upon a well-trod trail. To the right, it followed the ridgeline along the jumble of hills; to the left, it dropped into the adjacent canyon. Above and far to the north were radio towers and an air traffic beacon. We turned right and followed the principal trail toward the vicinity of parking area. I noted that we were "going against traffic," since the frequent rock arrows pointed the other way. Eventually we dropped into the head of the most promising slot canyon. This constricted into a wonderful maze-like narrows. We then encountered the first of the three ladders. These allowed us to safely descend dry waterfalls. The biggest, a well-constructed wood ladder, is 20 feet high. I correctly surmised that this was the well-known Ladder Canyon! The final ladder, an aluminum extension ladder, is superfluous, as it can easily be bypassed to the left. It may have been replaced in its original location by one of the wooden ladders. This is nearly at the slot entrance (our exit), which is marked by a sign "Ladder Canyon Trail" in the main wash.

We turned right in the main wash and within a 1/4 mile were back at my truck, without seeing anyone throughout our loop. What a wonderful Christmas present! We'll have to return soon to visit the nearby Grotto, and the Hidden Springs fan palm oasis.

Stats: About 5 miles, 500 feet gain roundtrip.

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