Ladder Canyon Trail & Painted Canyon Loop Hike
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance||5 miles (8.1 km)|
|Hike Time||3 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||560 feet (171m)|
|Highest Elevation||1,330 feet (405m)|
|Fees & Permits||Free|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Mecca Hills Wilderness|
Considered one of the best desert hikes in Southern California, the Ladder Canyon Trail, with a loop through Painted Canyon, is a must-do. The hike weaves through the canyons in Mecca Hills Wilderness, a rugged and beautiful series of rock formations and slot canyons created by the San Andreas fault and thousands of years of erosion. And, of course, there are the famous ladders. To do the hike, you’ll climb up and down several ladders to scale the steep cliff walls. Don’t worry, the ladders aren’t that scary and I’ll explain the experience in detail here in this guide. Another great thing about the Ladder Canyon Trail is that you have great views of the high mountains when you are not in a canyon. Overall this is an incredible hike.
Where is the Ladder Canyon Trail?
The start of the Ladder Canyon Trail is at the end of the unpaved Painted Canyon Road in Mecca, CA, in the eastern part of the Palm Springs / Coachella Valley area. Use this trailhead address:
Painted Canyon Trailhead, Painted Canyon Rd, Mecca, CA 92254
Check the weather before you go. If there are thunderstorms or flash flood warnings for the area, you don’t want to be on this hike. If there has been rain recently, Painted Canyon Road can be closed. Check its status here.
Navigating Painted Canyon Road
Getting to the Ladder and Painted Canyon Trailhead is an adventure in itself, and there are many different stories out there about what the experience is like. Here’s the deal.
- It’s about 4.5 miles on the unpaved Painted Canyon Road to get to the trailhead. The sand is generally hard-packed and rutted in spots. Some sections have soft sand that you can get stuck in. Normally you can drive almost to the trailhead before you hit any soft sand.
- If you have a two-wheel drive or low-clearance vehicle, and the sand gets too soft, just back up and park somewhere safe. It’s okay to park along the side of the road, and people often park from 0.6-0.3 miles away from the trailhead and walk. That said, I’ve seen low-clearance vehicles get to the trailhead without a problem. It’s whatever you’re comfortable with.
- If you have a truck or jeep, you’ll be fine.
- If you do get stuck, know that there’s generally no cell-phone service in the canyon and you’ll probably have to hitch a ride with another hiker back to the road.
- Some guides have reports of cars being broken into. As far as I can tell, there are no more robberies here than any other trailhead in Southern California. Be smart and don’t leave any valuables in your car.
There are no bathrooms or water sources at the trailhead or on the hike. There is a primitive toilet at another parking area about 1 mile down the road from the trailhead.
Gear for the Hike
This is a backcountry hike and you should prepare accordingly. And although there are shady sections in the slot canyons, other sections are exposed. It’s not a hike to do in warmer conditions. People who are not prepared need to get rescued from Ladder and Painted Canyons quite often.
- Bring at least 1L of water, more if it’s hot.
- Trekking poles are best left at home since you’ll be climbing and descending ladders.
- The trail is very sandy at times, if you have low gaiters, it’ll help keep the debris out of your shoes.
- You don’t need any special gear for the ladders.
The Most Comfortable Hiking Shoe Ever
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 (Women: REI | Amazon + Men: REI | Amazon) is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they work great on the trail. It’s a favorite of PCT and AT hikers for a good reason!
Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated February 2021.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.
Ladder Canyon Trail Maps
So first, a warning. There are several trails through the canyons here, and the route that I describe in this guide is the most popular and easiest to do for most folks. But there are other canyons with ladders and ropes and other scrambling challenges. I highly recommend “dipping your toe” into the area with this routing, and then exploring the other canyons and trails later. All of the markers left by local hikers on this route are geared to this popular routing.
And plan on a slower pace than normal. You’ll be climbing rocks and ladders, and hiking in soft sand. If you’re not used to hiking 5 miles normally, this isn’t the trail to push your limits on.
Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.
Technically dogs are allowed here, but getting them up and down the ladders would be tough, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing them.
Understanding the Ladders
The ladders can be intimidating if you haven’t done them before, but once you do one or two, it’s a cakewalk. The ladders have been placed on parts of the trail where you have to scale a canyon wall. I’d say the tallest is probably about 12-15 feet. And a massive thank you to the Coachella Valley Hiking Club for maintaining the ladders here out of their own pockets.
When it’s hot out, keep your eyes open for lizards and snakes. The trail is fairly busy and animals are generally scared away, but be cautious when reaching up the rocks just in case.
Ladder Canyon Trail and Painted Canyon Loop Hike Directions
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This guide last updated on February 8, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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