When I think of slot canyons, I think of the stunning water-carved walls of Southern Utah and the tall narrow gorges of Northern Arizona. I think of iconic slots with telling names like the Subway, the Zion Narrows, and Secret Canyon. What I don’t picture, however, is a slot canyon just outside of Palm Springs, California, a land more known for palm trees and art deco hotels than its geologic wonders.
In fact, you wouldn’t know this treasure of a hike was only a few miles off the road. It’s not the type of hike you find on a two-lane highway meandering through dramatic mesas or bucolic farm land; on the contrary, it’s accessed by urban freeways through industrial areas full of mines and windmills.
But it’s there, hidden in Mecca Hills, a protected wilderness formed by the convergence of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. You may be more familiar with one of its most prominent features, the San Andreas Fault — in fact, the active fault line runs right through Mecca Hills.
The most well-known of the hikes in this wilderness (and among the best in Southern California, in my opinion) is the Ladder Canyon Trail, a loop that takes you into the heart of the hills through Ladder Canyon and Big Painted Canyon.
Though the hike is fairly remote (about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs, with the last 5 miles on a washboard road), it’s surprisingly accessible for casual day trippers. The Ladder Canyon Trail is not a very long or strenuous hike, and it’s not particularly challenging… unless you have a fear of heights.
That’s because one of the most unique aspects of the Ladder Canyon Trail is the method by which you explore the slot canyon: up and down a series of ladders.
At the trailhead, it’s easy to miss the entrance to the slot canyon if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Make a left turn too soon and you could end up on an entirely different (but from what I hear, totally fun) hike into the more technical Rope Canyon, a trail you ascend with fixed ropes!
I’ve read that there’s sometimes a sign marking the slot canyon, but storms often sweep it away. There’s sometimes an arrow assembled with rocks by other hikers, pointing across the valley floor to the entrance. (And in fact, these rock arrows are prevalent throughout the canyon to help you find your way. But don’t count on them every time you visit.)
When we came, there was neither a sign nor an arrow. We walked straight into Big Painted Canyon for about a quarter-mile and looked for the telltale pile-up of boulders on our left that looked like a big rockslide. From below, the slot was hidden until we were actually in it.
We found a short ladder at the base of the rock pile, but it wasn’t really necessary. For fun, I ascended the ladder while Will (and the baby) scrambled up the sandstone boulders. We reconvened at the top of the rockslide and found ourselves staring into the narrow ravine of Ladder Canyon.
And so the adventure began!
We immediately faced our first real ladder — real meaning we actually had to use it to climb down the trail.
If you’re wondering how this ladder (or any of the other ones) got there, the name of a local hiking group was inscribed on a couple of them. Flash floods are common in the canyon, and the ladders seemed to be regularly maintained by these hiking groups. All but two of the ladders we came across were basic aluminum ladders in good condition, and were simply leaned against the walls for stability. (The odd ladders out were wooden, but still in great shape.)
After descending the first ladder, we came around a bend and into the most picturesque passageway — and yes, another ladder. From the sounds of it, Gemma surely enjoyed hitching a ride up!
We continued on the trail and clambered up a few more ladders, most of them reaching 6 feet high or so. I loved the views from both the bottom and the top of the ladders; they really gave an intriguing perspective of the dry waterfalls that shaped the canyon. In some places, the slot was barely shoulder wide, with towering walls of red sedimentary strata flanking the trail.
The trail eventually got wider and wider as it climbed out of the canyon and onto a rounded ridge with a large rock cairn. Once we topped out, we could see the maze of trails snaking through Big Painted Canyon below us — still so much to explore in these hills! To the south were sweeping views of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea in the far distance, and to the north, rock arrows pointed up a trail in the direction of some radio towers.
From here, it’s possible to turn back and hike out through the slot canyon again, but we chose to complete the loop for a change of scenery. After taking a break for lunch on top of the hill, we followed the arrows over a butte and descended the trail down a rocky slope. It dropped us right into the broad sandy wash of Big Painted Canyon, where we found more arrows, guiding hikers who were doing the loop in reverse (starting in Big Painted Canyon and finishing out of Ladder Canyon).
Once we entered the wash, I was so glad we decided to do the loop. The canyon deepened the farther we went, exposing a wonderland of metamorphic rock formations in all shades of pink, purple, and green — an artist’s palette very conducive to a name like Painted Canyon. I even found quartz deposits along the trail.
About a mile or so into our walk, we spotted a side canyon to our left with another ladder leading up, the tallest ladder we’d seen so far (about 30 feet). We didn’t have time to check it out before dark, but from what I’ve read, it was the start of another hike installed with ladders and it gave me one more reason to return to Mecca Hills. The area is just rife with canyons to explore!
As we neared the end of our loop, two final ladders (one right after another) lowered us down a dry waterfall to the main canyon below.
The stunning, sheer sandstone walls looked more familiar as we followed the same trail we came in from. With the sun setting over the desert, the rocks took on a rich, reddish, almost purple glow.
All told, the hike was about 6 miles roundtrip and with our leisurely pace and lunch break (not to mention our precious cargo), it took about 4 hours to complete. I counted eight ladders on our loop, but since there were a couple different paths and scrambles through the slot canyon, not all of them were absolutely needed for passage.
Big Painted Canyon currently ranks among my favorite hikes in the region as it had a little bit of everything: badlands, slot canyons, ladders, viewpoints, and desert flora (which I’m sure is even lovelier in spring). It’s a truly special place. Maybe we’ll try the roped trail next time!
LauraMarch 2, 2017 at 5:31 pm
Thank you so much for posting this! It’s been about 20 years since I first saw this hike – and back then – the ladders weren’t as well maintained and I don’t recall ever actually finishing the loop. But – this gives me a better sense of the total hike and I’m definitely going to make this a stop for my family next time we’re in the area…
Linda from Garden BettyMarch 3, 2017 at 11:50 am
If you can make it out this spring before the hot weather sets in, I think it’ll be even more gorgeous with all the wildflowers in bloom!