Just outside the city of Mecca, California, a desert community which lies just north of the Salton Sea, you’ll find Mecca Hills Wilderness Area. This area boasts a unique geographical landscape that was formed long ago with the convergence of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault. We had a great weekend trip planned to Death Valley National Park this past spring, but due to COVID-19 we weren’t able to make it happen. So when we met a couple from L.A. while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and they recommended Ladder + Big Painted Canyons as an alternative…well, we had to check them out!
If you’re looking for something a little different than Joshua Tree National Park, but still want to stay in the area in our experience there is no better option than the Ladder Canyon hike (as long as you are willing to get a little off the beaten path). Our family loves this ~5 mile loop adventure for its length, moderate difficulty, unique experience (yup, you are really going to be climbing ladders!), dramatic scenery, towering canyons, tight passages, and views.
The route begins from a dirt trailhead that winds through a slot canyon, heads up to a ridge, presents some pretty stellar views (including some of the Salton Sea) and then passes through Painted Canyon, an area known for its unique coloring from different layers/ages of rock pushed up by the San Andreas Fault.
This hike has just a small elevation gain (~900 feet), so that’s not too much of a concern. Honestly, the hardest part of the entire hike is the heat. Thus we absolutely do not recommend attempting it during the summer.
Note: Our Apple Watches usually seem to clock the hikes longer than they are recorded by the AllTrails app, however this hike clocked in almost the exact length quoted (we added the 1 mile/each way hike in time to the trail separately). In any regard we recommend having the AllTrails trail map downloaded far ahead of time before venturing out just in case you lose cell signal along the way (we did). Additionally, there are several points along the way where the loop crosses other trails making, it a bit more confusing. Making a wrong turn in the heat and running outta water would be be tragic. So be prepared going in!
To be safe, we would allow ~4 hours to complete the hike with the littles in tow. This gave our family enough time to travel at a relaxed pace with the kids, enjoy a few hydration breaks, as well as a shaded 15 minute lunch stop once we arrived in Big Painted Canyon.
Bottom line: Overall, we found the trail to be moderate in difficulty, mostly due to the soft sands of the canyon floors (sometimes it felt like we were walking on the beach – yup, that loose!) and the heat. The hike itself is not very technical and only presents just a little bit of elevation gain. In order to successfully complete the loop you’ll need to be physically able (and willing) to climb ladders.
Getting to the Trailhead/Parking
Well, start by saying that it’s a bit of effort to get to the trailhead as it is located at the end of a 4 mile dirt road called Painted Canyon Road. Honestly, it’s bumpy and the sand gets progressively looser as you get closer to the trailhead. We managed to get about a mile from the trail head before things got loose enough we decided to stop and walk from there. Its not ideal, but certainly doable, so don’t pay too much attention to the “Passable for 4-wheel drive vehicles only” sign – just be smart. Avoid the soft sand, holes, go slow (10-15mph) and keep some momentum during your wild ride down to the trailhead and you should be good. In SoCal it’s always a good idea to keep snow chains in your car – there was certainly no snow to be found, but the chains can also be used in sand for added traction if you really get yourself into a mess. Thankfully, we never had to break them out, but having them available is certainly a peace of mind.
We ended up parking on the side of the dirt road about a mile from the trailhead and hiking the rest of the way in. It made for a longer hike, but better to be safe than to get stuck (if you have a 4WD and a vehicle with higher clearance you’ll most likely have no issues making it to the trailhead). If you are able to make it all the way there is a dirt lot with plenty of space. No permits are required and parking is free, however there are no restrooms located at the trailhead, so plan accordingly.
Once at the trailhead you’ll see a bulletin/sign board. We have found these in the past to be helpful to review before setting out, however, this one is not. Do yourself a solid here and download the map on AllTrails beforehand, so that you have some guidance. Although there are rock arrows on the ground (see a couple photos down) that help mark the trail, these sometimes disappear due to flash floods.
So now you’re here and you (hopefully) have that map downloaded. Begin by hiking about a quarter mile into the wide mouth of Big Painted Canyon. Soon you’ll notice a junction and an arrow made out of rocks on the ground pointing left. Yup, this is indeed the entrance to Ladder Canyon, so follow the arrow and move towards the rock fall. Climb over the rocks and boom(!) you’re in Ladder Canyon!
In this canyon, you’ll be met with a series of ladders (surprise!) to help you as you traverse the canyon. There were a couple that were a smidge wobbly when we went, so make sure to test them first before simply making your way up. Safety first.
Before going forward it’s important to note that even though you are in a semi-tucked away in a slot canyon now there there are still portions of the hike in this section that are very exposed. Remember the sun procession (sunscreen, wide-brim hat (kids’ version: Seattle Sombrero)), and water – lots and lots of water!
Below was our favorite ladder! So pretty and encased within steep, towering, rugged walls! And that’s our fearless 6-year-old killin’ it up this very ladder. Longest one of the day! Go Miles!
Slowly the canyon begins to widen out, everything begins to become more exposed again, the ladders will disappear and you will slowly begin to climb out onto the ridge. I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but this is certainly not the hike to forget the sunscreen, or that nerdy wide-brim hat (kids’ version: Seattle Sombrero).
Each of us had been taking in lots of water the entire hike, however this is a section where we all downed a lot. The day we hiked the temperature hovered around 100F, so make sure to pack at least 3L of water per person. We 100% recommend Camel Bak/Osprey hydration bladders for this as the easier the water is to access the more we drink and ain’t nobody got time for heat stroke.
The trail will continue to climb up fairly steadily, but not too rigorously until you are standing on top of the canyon. The view is pretty spectacular, can you see the Salton Sea black there? You’ll continue along the edge of the rocky and barren canyon seeing Ocotillo along the trail following the same types of rock arrows on the ground that you saw at the beginning of the trail until you meet up with the wash. Here you’ll begin to descend back down slowly making your way into Big Painted Canyon (take your time here as it is a tad slippery and the gravel loose).
Note: We didn’t need trekking poles this trip which is something we almost always use now when out hiking. However, proper hiking shoes helped a lot and we would recommend them. This section especially was easier with good grips!
Once down at the wash, make a right and follow the wash into Big Painted Canyon. This portion of the hike is beautiful with cool patterns. However, like the ridge it is still fairly exposed, so try to find and walk in the shaded sections when they are available as they are few and far between. Additionally, this was also our lunch stop. There aren’t nearly as many ladders as you make your way back to the “stick of the lollypop,” however there are two and a fun rope that you get to move down. Don’t worry, the excitement isn’t over yet!
When we hiked this section there were several beehives along the trail, one of them being atop of this rope. Again, just beeeee smart.
Eventually the trail will meet up where you originally found that first rock arrow on the ground and headed left. This time though you’ll go straight and in no time at all you’ll be back at the trailhead!
What to Pack
Deuter Kid Comfort Hiking Pack: In our opinion, a structured carrier is a must for this hike when carrying littles. With 4 hours mostly in the saddle this carrier is the most comfy one we got (built-in pillow, sunshade), plus it allows for better airflow than our soft structured carrier (Tula). In addition, the pocket made specifically for a water bladder is key in the heat.
Sunscreen: We love mineral-based sunscreen and our family go-to has been Blue Lizard. It’s a bit more expensive than many of the other brands out there, but, in our opinion, well worth it. Mineral sunscreens are a bit different than the typical ones you can find on store shelves (many of them chemical-based) as they sit directly on your skin instead of penetrating into the skin’s layers. This essentially creates a better barrier from the sun. We’ve tried many of their products and have been extremely happy with how they feel when we use them as well as how they don’t leave us looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost!
Water: This hike Dom and I each carried 3L of water and Miles (our 6yo) carried 1.5L of H2O in his Osprey HydraJet Pack. All of our water was packed in CamelBak type bladders as it’s easier to access that way and as a result we all tend to drink more because of it. Don’t underestimate the desert heat and the level of exposure during this hike.
Osprey Backpack: This beauty has been on nearly every trip (+10 countries!) with us since we purchased it years ago. Osprey products are no doubt expensive, but are incredibly durable and there seems to be a spot for everything.
Snacks: If you have kids you know the value of throwing in some solid snacks. If you’re looking for some ideas our trusty “go-tos” are: fruit and nut bars, Kids Clif Bars, clementines, apple slices, trail mix, grapes, Kind Bars … you get the idea). Additionally, we would also encourage you to pack a lunch in addition to a few snacks to enjoy in the shade. Our “go-to” hiking lunch is always tortillas, salami and Baby Bel cheese rollups (however I do always throw in two timeless PBJs just in case one or both of the kiddos isn’t feeling the roll-ups that day).
Hiking Boots: We love our boots! We have used them for all sorts of wilderness adventures including trekking through Nepal, climbing numerous mountains in Japan, as well as up Mt. San Jacinto! Good grips will help in the canyon as well as on your descent into the wash of Big Painted Canyon.
Enjoy the Trails,