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Hike The Ladder Canyon Trail Painted Canyon Loop

Ladder Canyon Trail & Painted Canyon Loop Hike

In This Guide
  • 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
Total Distance5 miles (8.1 km)
Hike Time3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)560 feet (171m)
Highest Elevation1,330 feet (405m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dogs AllowedNo
Alerts & Closures (?)Mecca Hills Wilderness
Park Phone760-833-7100

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.

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Here’s the start of the (all dirt) Painted Canyon Road. Don’t get scared by the sign, plenty of low-clearance cars can do this.
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Most of Painted Canyon Road is like this, hard-packed sand with some washboarding.
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Some sections have soft sand. Conditions change as often as the wind blows, so just be aware as you drive.
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If you do get stuck, put some flat rocks under the wheel that drives your car (usually the front), in the direction that you need to get out of the sand in (usually backing up). Your tires can sometimes grip the rocks and break free.
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If you hit a lot of soft sand as you get closer to the trailhead, just park on the side of the road. This is about 0.4 miles away.
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The Painted Canyon Trailhead is easy to spot and has parking spots right in front of the canyon start.
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There is also parking down along the canyon wall.
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Painted Canyon Road dead-ends at the trailhead, so don’t worry about passing it.

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.

Altra Lone Peak

The Most Comfortable Hiking Shoe Ever
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 (Women: REI | Amazon  + Men: REI | Amazonis 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!

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

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.

Gaiagps

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.

My February 2021 Top Gear Picks

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.

Click Here To View Map

Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map

Fenix 6 Pro

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.

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Local hikers have nicely marked the loop trail up Ladder Canyon and back down Painted Canyon with these big rock arrows, which you can find at most intersections or tricky parts of the hike.
Bad Gps Signal In Canyon
Note that a GPS always comes in handy, but when you are deep in the canyons, they can be inaccurate as they struggle to get a signal. Here are my tracks from several hikes in the canyons here. You can see how the GPS struggles to get a good fix with the high canyon walls.

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.

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Here’s an example of a ladder section. When you get to a ladder, give it a light shake and make sure it’s all secure.
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The ladders are usually secured at the bottom with rocks so they don’t slip.
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The ladders are in decent shape but do get banged up. Sometimes a rung or two can be missing.
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Look for a secure rock at the top of the ladder when you have to pull yourself up.
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Bleeding is not compulsory on the hike but I usually bang myself up a little bit. Long sleeves and pants would probably solve the problem.
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When the canyons flood, the ladders get washed away. You might spot some remnants of ladders past as you hike up the canyon.
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If you choose to go down a ladder front-ways, the way I’m doing here, be careful, it’s easy to slip off. It’s safer to face the ladder.

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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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

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Check the trail board at the trailhead for any notices. They also recommend taking a picture of the map.
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Head up Big Painted Canyon from the parking area. You’re basically walking up the canyon, so don’t stress about finding a “trail trail.”
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The canyon is wide, sandy, and easy to follow.
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Look at this rockfall!
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Soon Big Painted Canyon narrows. It’s spectacular and feels like something from a National Park.
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Okay, this junction is very important. Look for the big rock arrow in the middle of the path pointing left. There will also be a big rockfall in front of a slot canyon to your left. You’re going to climb up the rockfall and into Ladder Canyon.
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When you look at the rockfall to the left, it will seem nearly impossible to scale. Go into it and to the left of the fall to find the hidden trail up the rocks.
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You’ll climb up some big rocks but it’s not a technical scramble in any way.
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As you climb look for the small cave and ladder to your left. You can also go up that route if you’d like. I find climbing up the rocks to be a bit easier here.
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Once you get to the top of the rockfall and enter Ladder Canyon, you have another pile of rocks to climb up. Again, nothing technical.
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The first ladder you encounter has you climbing down.
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And shortly after that you’ll climb up the tallest ladder.
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The top looks sketchy, but there are rocks up there that you can grab onto to and pull yourself up the very top.
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Keep heading up the narrow and beautiful Ladder Canyon. Some parts climb up the rock but don’t require a ladder.
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The canyon is narrow but wide enough for a person to get through.
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One last ladder for you in Ladder Canyon.
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Now you start walking up the slot canyon. It’s level and pretty easy.
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As you climb, the cliffs start to open up and you see sky.
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When you get to the intersection with the side canyon, keep hiking straight.
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You’ll come out of the canyon and start a rocky climb to the top of a hill.
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At the top of the hill, the views open up and it’s spectacular. Keep hiking uphill on the trail.
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There are a lot of handy arrows on this stretch of trail. All the way until you come back in Painted Canyon.
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Look back to your left as you hike for nice views of Mount San Jacinto.
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Soon you’ll see the gorge that is Painted Canyon down to your right. Continue on the trail left along the rim. There’s a side trail to the right here. Avoid it and keep heading up the loop.
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Don’t get too close to the edge here, it’s a sheer drop into Painted Canyon.
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Keep following the arrows on the ridgeline trail.
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Keep straight, avoiding any side trails.
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Toward the end of this stretch there’s a viewpoint with rock cairns to the left. The trail continues right as indicated by the rock arrow.
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Here’s a view from that last spot. On the left, San Jacinto, on the right, San Gorgonio.
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Shortly after that the trail will veer right. Follow the arrows to stay on the loop trail.
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You come to a steep little descent into Painted Canyon. Hike down into the canyon and make the right into the wash.
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You’re basically going to be hiking down Painted Canyon wash until you get back to the start. At this point it’s pretty wide. Pick any path along the wash that you’d like.
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Soon the canyon gets narrower and you get to experience all the colored rocks in Painted Canyon.
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When you get to the T junction, bear right and keep hiking down the wash.
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There’s lots of beauty as you hike down the wash.
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Keep right as you pass the ladder and canyon to the left.
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Another ladder! Climb on down.
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And right after that you’ll encounter your last ladder of the hike.
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Continue hiking down Painted Canyon,
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Toward the end you’ll see the rocks you scrambled up into Ladder Canyon on your right. Head straight toward the parking area.
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And soon you’re back where you started. That’s the hike!

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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