Heading to Southern California to enjoy the sunshine? Already visited Disneyland, the San Francisco Bay area and all the other famous (and crowded) attractions? Looking for something new, exciting and adventurous? Then head out to the Mecca Hills east of Palm Springs and get ready to explore Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon. There is no admission charge and crowds are not a problem. The area is one of the few remaining undiscovered gems in California.
This very scenic area is on the eastern side of the southern Coachella Valley and is accessible via a well-maintained unpaved road that starts about four miles east of the community of Mecca along Box Canyon Road. Fall through early spring is the best time to visit, as the weather is cool enough to allow extended hikes in the canyons.
Both Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon have soft pastel colors covering the surface of the earth where rock outcroppings and mud have been displaced by the San Andreas Fault over hundreds of years. Red, gray, brown, pink and green colors wash over the hills and canyon walls, creating a beautiful sight. The two canyons, side canyons, offshoots and mud hills lie within the 31,400-acre Mecca Hills Recreation Area.
The most popular hike is to trek up Painted Canyon about a half-mile to the mouth of Ladder Canyon, which is a very photogenic slot canyon. The name comes from a series of ladders that have been strategically placed in the canyon to allow hikers to negotiate several dry falls. This is not an exercise for the claustrophobic or those with a fear of ladders (you know who you are). However, this precautionary statement need not scare off the average adventurer, as I have read several reports of grandmothers making the trip without peril.
The deepest part of Ladder Canyon is encountered as you enter. Shortly, you will encounter the first ladder that will take you toward the breathtaking views awaiting you at the top. Each successive ladder, while shorter than the first, gets you a little closer to your goal. If you have children, the ladders will be the highlight of their trip. When you reach the top of the canyon, you will see wonderful views and a multitude of trails. Take a break here to soak in the beauty of the area, capture the views with your camera and enjoy the solitude. Leave your mark that you made it to the summit by adding a rock to the large cairn marking the top of the Ladder Canyon trail.
If you do not possess good way-finding skills, this is a good place to turn around and head back the way you came. If you want to make a loop trip out of your visit and are skilled at finding your way, you may descend via one of the other canyons back to Painted Canyon. Be sure and bring a detailed map, compass and GPS receiver. Speaking of GPS receivers, there are many geocaches to find during your visit.
Vegetation in the area includes abundant palo verde trees and smoke trees. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, the desert tortoise and spotted bats in the Mecca Hills area.
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote RV and manufactured home shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle.
IF YOU GO:
Plan on spending a minimum of four hours for an enjoyable round trip to the top of Ladder Canyon and back. This is desert country, so carry plenty of water and use sunscreen even in winter.
Mecca Hills Recreation Area is about 15 miles southeast of Indio in the Mecca Hills, between Interstate 10 and Highway 111.
From Interstate 10, take State Highway 195 (Box Canyon Road) to Painted Canyon Road. Follow the graded dirt road for approximately three miles until you enter the canyon.
From Highway 111, when you reach Mecca veer right on 66th Avenue, which is also State Highway 195. The road will curve toward the left and become Box Canyon Road. Take Painted Canyon Road from Box Canyon Road and follow the graded dirt road to the canyon. Those navigating by GPS will find the turn off for Painted Canyon Road at 33 34.545N 115 59.761W.
Note: At the time of our visit, signs at the beginning of Painted Canyon Road stated “Road Is Not Maintained” and “4 x 4 Vehicles Only.” The day of our visit the road had been freshly graded and was passable by any passenger vehicle. Online reports list Painted Canyon Road as a well-maintained gravel road.
There are several nice places to camp at the end of Painted Canyon Road. There is no cost to camp, and your stay is limited to 14 days.
For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management in Palm Springs at (760) 251-4800.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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