Big Colorful Canyon Trail runs 6 miles round trip

Day hikers can explore one of the largest – and most colorful – canyons in the middle of the Mecca Hills Wilderness.

The aptly named Big Colorful Canyon Trail runs 6 miles round trip and gains about 350 feet.  Sunny days are best for a hike, especially in the morning. Cloudy days limit the sunlight needed to bring out the rock walls’ color.

Big Colorful Canyon Trail Tops Hiking List

Rocks in Big Colorful Canyon have been thrust up sharply as faults pinch the land.

To reach the trailhead, take Calif. Hwy. 111 to Mecca. Turn left/northeast onto Fourth Street then at the roundabout go right/southeast onto Hammond Road. After a couple of blocks, head left/east onto 66th Avenue. As the street curves northeast, it naturally becomes Box Canyon Road. After crossing the canal, in 3 miles look for a flat, hard-packed dirt on the left; about 50 yards from the road are boulders aligned to keep vehicles from going into the canyon. Park off the road here.

Compared to other canyons, Big Colorful is an easy walk as flooding has removed much of the sand.

At 0.25 miles in, Pyramid Canyon is to the right. Continue left into the wider Big Colorful Canyon.

The strata in this part of the Mecca Hills badlands is sharply uplifted, and as gaining elevation you’ll go through a number of layers ranging in color from brilliant red-orange and mauve to coral and burnt sienna.

The varying colors offer a mini-lesson in the Mecca Hills’ geology.

If you see gray rocks that are extremely hard, they’re the Coachella Valley’s bedrock. This gneiss formed between 1.8 billion and 1.65 billion years ago, long before there was plant or animal life on Earth.

At 0.8 miles on the right is the Split Canyon Cave Trail; continue straight-left. Big Colorful Canyon narrows then widens just beyond Split Canyon.

Big Colorful Canyon Trail Tops Hiking List

Reddish rock in Big Colorful Canyon formed millions of years ago when floods brought sediment from higher land to the east.

Mixed with the gneiss are layers of much younger rock. Among them are brown volcanic tuff – hardened ash – and sediments of Dos Palmas Rhyolite that settled here between 23 million to 5.3 million years ago.

These and other rocks from vastly different eras are all mixed together in the Mecca Hills. The San Andreas and other faults pinch the ground so rocks rise at vertical angles. Additional squeezing and erosion then move the rocks sometimes above a younger layer or below an older one.

At 1.3 miles, another canyon breaks to the right. Continue straight-left/north. In the distance are high, colorful rock walls and on the horizon what appears to be an almost white mountain.

Much of the Mecca Hills consists of reddish sandstone and conglomerate of the Mecca Formation. This formed about 5.3 million to 2.58 million years ago when flash flooding washed away sediment from higher land east of the Coachella Valley and deposited it on alluvial fans that already were here.


When the canyon “splits,” go left.

Usually above the red rock are the tan, buff and gray layers of sandstone of the Canebrake Formation. This was set down between 2.6 million years to 11,700 years ago when water flowing out of higher ground to east deposited sediment here.

The trail next comes to a large canyon on the left. This is the Burnt Sienna Cutoff Ridge Loop. Continue straight-right.

If you notice white, crystal-like snaking through a canyon wall, you’ve come across an apelite dike. It’s mainly quartz and light-colored feldspar that formed about 10 miles below the surface. There, heat and pressure allowed the rocks to melt and flow upward into the surrounding rocks, which since have been uplifted and exposed.

Next the canyon soon opens up into a wash. After passing a side canyon, the walls grow increasingly colorful, with red rock especially plentiful.

Big Colorful Canyon Trail Tops Hiking List

Big Colorful Canyon Trail topo map. Trail is in yellow.

There’s not much green in the canyon, but you can find some sparse patches of ocotillo, creosote, palo verde, cat-claw acacia, smoke tree (which actually can thrive in washes), Western honey mesquite, and even some cactus.

At 3 miles, the canyon runs out, though you can scramble up the side to the ridge. This marks a good spot to head back. When you do turn around for the return trip, you’ll be wowed by a fantastic view of the blue Salton Sea to the southeast.

Much of the trail is exposed, so be sure to don sunscreen, sunglasses and sunhat. Never hike the trail if rain is forecast or if rain has fallen within the past 24 hours, as flashfloods can occur.





Image Sources

  • Rocks in Big Colorful Canyon: Rob Bignell
  • Photo-3-reddish-rock-in-big-colorful-canyon-formed-millions-of-years-ago-when-floods-brought-sediment-from-higher-land-to-the-east.: Rob Bignell
  • Big Colorful Canyon Trail: Rob Bignell