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.
- Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions to Hike the Ladder Canyon Trail & Painted Canyon Loop
- How To Navigate the Dirt Road to the Hike Start
- Understanding How to Do the Ladders Safely
- Tips and Tricks for the Hike
When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.
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.
My Latest Gear Picks
As a hiking guide, I test lots of hiking gear. On my picks page, I'll show you all of the gear that I actually use. I don't accept paid promotions or talk about the stuff that doesn't make the cut. It's just the gear that works best, so you don't have to waste your money.
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.
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
If the next ladder is missing, go back to the last photo and look for rocks pointing to the right, which will lead you to a small downward rock scramble that you tackle instead of the ladder in the next photo. Thanks to reader Cole O. for the update.
Have a question about the guide or want to see what other people are saying/asking? View the Youtube comments for this video. Leave a comment and I will do my best to respond.
This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!).
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