Mecca Hills Painted Canyon Ladder Canyon Hike
The Mecca Hills are located about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs, even past Indio and Coachella. It is reported that the Hills were formed by the convergence of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault, and the layers of various types of rock were pushed up several hundred years ago due to seismic activity far below the land we walk on. Painted Canyon is in the heart of the Mecca Hills area, and gives you the opportunity to view various colors of rock such as rose, pink, red, purple, tan, brown, and green, and the time of day dictates how the shadows change the colors of even the same rock at different times of the day.
The drive in to the trailhead from the city roads is a 4 mile rough dirt road and should not be attempted by a low-clearance vehicle. Also, if after a recent rain, the road might cause even small SUVs to get stuck in the mud. Plan your visit here carefully by paying attention to the weather days in advance.
December is a perfect time for visiting. The sun was bright, the sky was blue with just a few clouds in the sky, the rainy season hadn’t yet arrived, and the temperature was high 70s—a perfect day for desert hiking. This month fits into a very small window of ideal time for hiking in the desert, as the rainy season creates a dangerous risk of flash floods and mud that is unable to be driven or hiked in, and the summer/fall months see scorching heat that creates a serious risk of dehydration or heat exhaustion. So, I definitely recommend taking advantage of this hike in November-January before the rains arrive.
After parking at the trailhead, you have the option of starting the hike from the north end of the parking lot or the east side. It would appear that the east side is the correct starting point, but we found out that starting from the east prevents you from finishing the loop due to a 12-15 foot vertical drop that requires a rope climb. If we had started from the north end of the parking lot, then we would have been able to climb up the rope instead of approaching it from the top-down and deciding to turn around to not risk a broken ankle.
By starting the hike on the right side of the parking lot, you enter the mouth of the canyon with large 70 foot canyon walls on either side that appear to be dried mud. You immediately get a sense of being so miniscule within this world upon imaging the forces of nature that violently carved this canyon over the years.
About ¼ mile in you come across a small trail marker that requires you to take a hard left up a boulder scramble. I’ve read that this used to be a normal trail and it is now blocked by boulders due to a rockslide. Even though it doesn’t look like the way to go; rest assured that it is. You could keep going forward down the main pathway of the canyon, but of course that wouldn’t feed the sense of adventure that took you out here to begin with. So you take the boulder scramble route. After a short 20 feet of scrambling, you then come across a series of aluminum ladders that help you traverse the otherwise unnavigable platforms up and out of the canyon.
After conquering the series of ladders, the trail ascends quickly to the top of the canyon to the desert above where you find a series of trails. Following the rock cairns and specially-created rock arrows will take you another 2 miles or so to a handful of radio towers. Or, instead of following the rock cairns, you could just follow the trail to your right and loop your way back down into the Painted Canyon and return back to the vehicles. However, I would recommend exploring this area, as you don’t want to miss the opportunity of climbing some of the hills that serve as impromptu look-out points so you can get an overview of the many canyons and washes that seem to dominate the entire landscape, and you also get some pretty nice views of the massive (but disappearing) Salton Sea.
After exploring the topside, we tried to loop back to the parking lot, but this is where we got road-blocked by the vertical drop that required a rope climb down. So, we turned around and returned the way we came. Even without the adventurous experience of rope climbing, we had a great time exploring these canyons and I look forward to returning and going up the rope.
At the end of the day, we hiked roughly 5 miles total in 3.5 hours due to the extra time for exploration and pictures. One final word of caution: this area is not patrolled by park rangers, and the ladders appear to only have been placed voluntarily by local hiking clubs. If a ladder appears to not be safe (i.e broken rung, or not resting upon a firm base) then you may want to be safe rather than sorry…use your best judgment, and as always with any hike, bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, and definitely a camera.