Day hikers can explore a beautiful slot canyon while traversing a series of ladders at steep spots in the Mecca Hills Wilderness.
The Ladder Canyon-Big Painted Canyon Loop is a 6-mile lollipop trail with an elevation gain of 450 feet. Located on BLM land, a local hiking club provides the ladders and large arrows of collected rocks to keep you going the right way.
To reach the trailhead, take 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, go left/east onto 66th Avenue. As the street curves northeast, it naturally becomes Box Canyon Road. After crossing the canal, in a little more than a half-mile turn left/northwest onto the gravel Painted Canyon Road. The road winds through some scenic canyons; when it loops back upon itself, you’re at a sand parking lot. The trailhead heads northeast from the loop into a narrow canyon.
You’ll walk on the stem of the lollipop trail for about 0.25 miles; watch for a small trail sign pointing left to a canyon entrance with rockfall. This is Ladder Canyon. Scramble over the rocks and head into the narrow and noticeably cooler slot canyon. On the rockfall’s other side is your first ladder.
The Mecca Hills are being uplifted as the North American and Pacific tectonic plates slide against one another along the nearby San Andreas Fault. When rain falls across the nearly barren hills, the rushing water cuts through the rock, forming the canyons. Some of the exposed rock at the canyons’ lowest points were are more than 600 million years ago. The process of erosion continues today, leaving a layer of soft sand across the canyon floors.
Ladder Canyon is an otherworldly experience of curving stone, at time reminiscent of the famous Antelope Canyon near Grand Canyon National Park. Sometimes the slot canyon here is a mere two feet wide.
Upon exiting the slot canyon, you’ll be on a small ledge that gives you an awesome bird’s eye view of where you’ve just walked. Gradually the greater canyon widens, and the heat picks up here as there’s less shade from the mudstone walls.
Once you’ve entirely left the canyon, you’ll see a large pile of small rocks, often referred to as a cairn. Upon reaching it, you’ve gone about 2.75 miles and used four or five ladders. Be sure to look south for a great view of the Salton Sea.
While turning back than continuing the loop means less walking, climbing down the ladders actually is more difficult than going up them. Instead, descend to your vehicle through the wider, less steep and only slightly longer Big Painted Canyon – which means continuing the loop.
To do so, from the cairn, look for the footpath that goes northeast. When the trail reaches a T at the top of Big Painted Canyon, turn left/north; you’ll walk across the desert with communication towers in the distance. Near the base of a foothill, the trail curves right/east then right/south, as it heads down into Big Painted Canyon. Large arrows fashioned out of rocks point the way to go.
Follow Big Painted Canyon south/southwest. A lot of neat rock formations appear in various hues of pink, purple, red, rose and green, with quartz scattered across the canyon floor. There are additional ladders along the way as you descend through the canyon. Be aware that some lead to a canyon top vista; going “up” a ladder means you’re leaving the canyon and trail.
With Big Painted Canyon’s moister conditions, you can find ironwood, palo verde, smoke trees and even the rare lilac-colored Mecca aster along the trail. Ocotillo rises on the canyon rim. Plenty of harmless lizards scramble about the rocks, and if glancing at the sky, you’ll probably spot prairie falcons.
Eventually the trail reaches the entry to Ladder Canyon. Continue southwest onto the stem trail leading to the parking lot.
The loop is best done in early spring and late fall. The early morning light plays sublimely on the slot canyon walls. As this is a remote desert hike, carry extra water. Always test the ladders to ensure they are stable and secure before climbing them (note that the tallest ladder is about 12 feet). Be aware that flashfloods can wash away the cairn and rock trail markers, so always carry a topo map and compass on this hike.