San Diego Trail Tramps - Scheduled Hikes for 2011

Mecca Hills Wilderness / Painted Canyon / Ladder Canyon Hike

Date:   Saturday, April 2, 2011  09:00 AM -  05:00 PM
Hike Group:   San Diego Trail Tramps
Info. URL:   Current NOAA weather forecast for the Painted Canyon area
Location:   In the foothills, 7 miles north of the Salton Sea and just east of Mecca, CA.
(Not to be confused with Painted Gorge, which lies in the Coyote Mtns. NE of Ocotillo, CA.)
 Description:   Hiking time, distance, elevation gain, etc.: The approximate length of the loop hike is 5 miles, with an elevation gain of about 450 feet. The main canyon alone is an easy to moderate hike in difficulty, but the soft sand in the canyon floors can be a little hard on the ankles. Therefore, hiking boots with good ankle support are highly recommended, rather than sports shoes. However if you are planning to hike the ladder canyon and make the complete loop it is a more moderately strenuous hike and should only be attempted if you are in good shape, and are properly prepared with the right equipment, water and other hiking necessities. It will take 3-4 hours to complete the loop, plus time for breaks.

Location & area description: The Mecca Hills are located about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs. They were formed by the convergence of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault. The geologic formations of Mecca Hills are among the most unusual of their kind in the world, and the San Andreas Fault that runs from below the Salton Sea all the way above San Francisco is overdue for a large quake. For a map of recent earthquakes in the Palm Springs and Southern California area check out the USGS website.

Layers of eroded rock, some over 600 million years old, have been pushed up and overturned by the activity of the San Andreas Fault system. Painted Canyon, in the heart of the hills, exhibits many mineral deposits in hues of rose, pink, red, purple and green. The canyon runs in a general north-south direction, and is distinguished by sandy washes sprinkled with Ironwood, Smoke Trees, and Palo Verde. It is also home to the rare Mecca aster, a lilac tinted bloom resembling a daisy. Along the rim of the canyon and the tops of the mesas, are colorful Ocotillo. Occasionally Bighorn sheep cross over from the Orocopia Mountains on the east looking for water. Like any desert area, the fauna includes a multitude of lizards, snakes, and prairie falcons.

Hike description: Painted Canyon is an excellent hiking destination, one that can be explored by way of a loop through Ladder Canyon, named for the many ladders that aid hikers who journey through the canyon. After parking at the end of the dirt road that leads to the canyon, walk up the canyon that takes off to the right of the parking area. After about 1/4 of a mile, a signpost to the right of the canyon points across the way to the left. Looking to the left at the signpost, it's difficult to believe there is a trail there, as it has been hidden by countless rockslides. Enter to the right of the rockslide and you will quickly find yourself in a magnificent slot canyon.

The Eagle that guards the entrance to the slot canyon.

It will take navigating several ladders to reach the top of the canyon. The wooden ladders are maintained by volunteers, and can be a little treacherous especially if they have broken rungs. (Newer, metal ladders have been added in some areas for increased stability.) If you feel they are unsafe, please do not try to climb them. Instead return the way you came and hike either the Big Painted Canyon (the one you took to find the Ladder Canyon…), or the Little Painted Canyon that leads to the left of the parking area. Both of these hikes are also worth the effort.

If the ladders are in good condition, you will reach the top of the slot canyon after about 1/4 of a mile. At the top, the trail continues up the side of the hills to the adjoining trail that skirts the top edge of Painted Canyon. After exiting the slot canyon, take the trail to the right up the slope to the edge of Painted Canyon. Once at the top, take the trail to the left and follow it across the mesa until it slopes down into Big Painted Canyon to the right.

There are beautiful views of the Salton Sea to the right as you follow the trail along the edge of the canyon. When you reach the canyon, go to the right and stay right at any junction. After about a mile, you will reach several more ladders, which lead to the canyon below. After this series of ladders, it is about 3/4 of a mile to the parking area where the hike began.

Directions to the Mecca Hills: (Google directions to Painted Canyon Road, Mecca, CA 92254)

From Palm Springs, Palm Desert or any of the other Coachella Valley cities, follow Highway 111 east to Mecca. Turn left at 66th Avenue and follow it as it curves through Mecca. The street then takes the name Box Canyon Road. After driving about 4 1/2 miles through many grape and citrus ranches you will cross the Coachella Canal and about 1/4 of a mile later you will see a sign for Painted Canyon Road on the left. Make a left turn and follow this dirt road for about 4 miles where it will dead-end at the parking area.

Keep in mind that Painted Canyon Road is a well maintained dirt/sand road and should be passable in most vehicles, but take care not to venture off the road or you WILL get stuck. Remember also that you will be in a wilderness area many miles away from food and water, so take plenty of both with you. The hike through the canyon is not steep, but it is soft sand, which will make walking a little difficult. Wear hiking boots! You should only attempt this hike if you are in good physical shape, and used to the rigors of hiking. It is also a good idea never to hike alone, and to have a cell phone with you in case of emergency.

(Check the Maps page of this website for more directions and maps to print out.)
Dogs are not recommended for this loop hike because of the steep metal ladders that need to be scaled in the dry waterfall areas of the slot canyons.