ladder canyon____ Bureau of Land Management___flickr

Best Desert Hike Ladder Canyon : Mecca Hills Wilderness

Best Slot Canyon near Palm Springs! So, Ladder Canyon might be the only slot canyon near Palm springs but it is an incredible experience. Just like its name suggests Ladder Canyon has Ladders, several in fact, that help you ascend the different dry waterfalls as you make your way up to the top of the canyon!

From the top viewpoint above Ladder Canyon  you will have three choices, 1 go back down the way you came, 2 follow the path to the left that leads to a 20ft. rope that descends steeply into a smaller slot canyon, or 3 follow the trail straight near a large canyon on the right, then down the trail to the right into Big Painted Canyon. All three routes will lead you back to the parking area.

While all three options could be fun, know your limits and skill level. Descending back down the ladders can be scary, going down the long rope might not be suitable for elderly, out of shape people, or children, and Big Painted Canyon is a longer hike.

Of the three I recommend Big Painted Canyon, it provides beautiful colored canyon walls, areas of shade and a flat hike with smaller rope descents.

 Choose your route before you go. If you change your mind part way through your hike you will be hot and be hiking out in the desert a lot longer than you planned. That happened to us on our first visit. We wanted to go through Big Painted Canyon after Ladder Canyon but we took the trail to the left (because we saw others on the trail to the left) instead of going straight. We ended up at the steep rope decent with three small children. (Bad idea!) It was too challenging for our family.  We ended up hiking back to the main trail to get to Big Painted Canyon. (It added 3hrs to our hike!)  We hiked 7 hours in the desert that day, all because of a wrong turn. Lucky for us I over packed water and snacks into our backpacks so we were ok, exhausted, but OK.

Embarking on an adventure to Ladder Canyon with family and friends is a great way to create cherished memories, just make sure to be over prepared with extra food and water and plan your route ahead of time. 

Ladder Canyon Map

Yellow Dot- Parking

Green- Big Painted Canyon

Red- Ladder Canyon

Blue- Route to and through smaller slot canyon.

**You will walk through a big box canyon that is part of Big Painted Canyon to get to Ladder Canyon. Ladder Canyon is on the left side and is easy to miss. The image below shows the entrance to Ladder Canyon, it looks like a pile of boulders.

Map of Ladder Canyon
Map of Ladder Canyon, Painted Canyon, and  a  smaller slot canyon route.
Ladder Canyon entrance
Ladder Canyon entrance left wall of canyon
Ladder Canyon entrance
Main box canyon view next to Ladder Canyon entrance (small easy to miss Ladder Canyon Trail sign on right side of canyon)

Ladder Canyon

A bit about Ladder Canyon

Mecca Ladder Canyon Hike is located in the heart of the Mecca Hills Wilderness Area on the active San Andreas Fault. The Mecca Hills were formed by the convergence (coming together) of the continental North American Plate and the oceanic Pacific Plate. The uplift of the continental plate has left raised sandstone layers of pink, red, purple, brown, and green mineral deposits that can be seen in Big Painted Canyon. Hiking through Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon offers a slot canyon experience, stunning views, and the opportunity to see Painted Canyon and all its color!

As its name implies, the ladders of Ladder Canyon make this hike unique. Tucked into a beautiful slot canyon, they allow you to climb up dry waterfalls. Don't let the trailhead fool you, your ladder hike begins by scrambling up a small rock fall to the left of the main trail that leads you into a slot canyon. The trail is sandy and requires good hiking shoes and the ability to climb ladders. This is a fun area for the kids to explore and wander. The high walls and windy turns make this section of the hike exciting, and it will seem to go by quickly. The full loop is about 4.9 miles, so you’ll need to bring snacks and plenty of water. You are also hiking in the desert, so plan for the hot weather and don’t hike this area after it has been raining. Flash floods can damage the trails and ladders.

As you explore the slot canyon you will notice its smooth, rounded curves and surfaces. This was carved by water in a process called mechanical weathering. Yes, this area is desert, but even deserts get rainfall. Most slot canyons start as a small creek or a path for runoff. Over many years, runoff from storms miles away will rush quickly through the creek, carving the path deeper into the earth. The path becomes a trench as the flooding water continues to surge after every spring melt or summer thunderstorm. Eventually, it can become a slot canyon just like Ladder Canyon.

What you can see and do at Ladder Canyon

Climb the Ladders in Ladder Canyon

Your Ladder Canyon hike begins after a short .25 milk walk through a big box canyon to the trail head. The trail head looks like large boulders, that you will have to scramble up to get to the slot canyon. (Pics above, under the map) 

The Highlight of Ladder Canyon is its ladders. They are a large part of what makes ladder canyon so much fun. They will help you to explore this windy multilevel slot canyon.

Warning: Don't go to Ladder Canyon or any other slot canyon if it is raining or if it has rained in the last day or so. Slot canyons will flood and can be lethal. Also water can wash away ladders.

Ladder Canyon
Ladder Canyon

View above Ladder Canyon

The view from the top of Ladder Canyon is definatly picture worthy. Take your pics, enjoy the view, BUT DON'T walk on the trail that goes towards this view unless you want to go on the route to the small slot to get back to your car.

If you plan on taking Painted Canyon walk AWAY from the hilly rugged view!

Ladder Canyon View
Ladder Canyon View

Ladder Canyon to Painted Canyon Full Loop

Full hike Ladder Canyon to Painted Canyon 4.9 miles.

This is the best option for hiking with kids, family, elderly, or people who are not experienced hikers.  In this hike you will experience the ladders and slots of Ladder Canyon and descend down into Painted Canyon to enjoy some shade and lots of different colored rock walls. There are even some short ladders and rope sections to descend near the end of Painted Canyon.

Big Painted Canyon
Big Painted Canyon

Descend the ropes near the end of Big Painted Canyon

These are the ropes I mentioned above. My kids were able to go up and down them on their own. In fact they went up and down over and over again because they thought they were so much fun. The image makes it look steeper than it is. Also its only about 8-10 ft high.

Big Painted Canyon Ropes
Big Painted Canyon Ropes

Many Colored Rocks of Big Painted Canyon

When I say there are many colored rocks I'm completely serious! This image is my favorite rock, my kids said its zebra striped. We also saw, reds, yellows, greens, oranges, and quartz crystals all across the canyon.

Big Painted Canyon
Big Painted Canyon Zebra Stripe Rocks

Ladder Canyon Pro Planning Tips

  • Season: Oct.-April, when temperatures aren’t so hot.

  • Difficulty: Moderate 4.5 mile loop, 967-foot elevation gain.

  • Time Needed: 3-4 hour hike with kids.

  • Cost: Free

  • Address: Painted Canyon Road Mecca CA. 92274, Follow Painted Canyon Road 3 miles on a dirt road to the trail head.

  • Ladder Canyon is a slot canyon with ladders that allow you to climb up the dry waterfalls so you can keep exploring more parts of the slot.

  • Hike the trail clockwise so that you are climbing up the ladders to the ridge instead of coming down them.

  • When you get to the top of Ladder Canyon, always stay on the trails that go to the right or straight. They will lead you down into Big Painted Canyon. Do not go left! It will take you on a long hike in the sun followed by a steep rope descent into another small slot canyon (not safe for little kids).

  • Rock arrows made by volunteers will guide you clockwise and through the hike, starting at Ladder canyon.

  • Hike starts by hiking through a box canyon for .25 miles. The entrance to Ladder Canyon will be on your left and looks like a rock pile blocking the canyon. Don’t be fooled; go in!

  • Bring a four-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t drive into the sand and park on a rocky area or you could get stuck.

  • Don't leave valuables in your car--break-ins have been reported at the trailhead.

  • Do not go after it rains as roads will be bad and flash floods may occur.

  • You must be able to climb ladders to do this hike.

  • Download the AllTrails trail map before you go (there is poor to no cell reception on hike).

  • Watch out for rattlesnakes, they do live here in the desert.

  • Bring lots of water and snacks!

Dig Deeper with a Learning Adventure

If your planning a trip to Ladder Canyon with your kids and want an easy way to learn about why Ladder Canyon is so unique then check out The California Adventure Activity Book. This is a great resource for your family. It includes our Top 10 CA Desert destinations (Including Ladder Canyon) with activities for each location and fun earth science lessons. It's like your own Junior Ranger program for each location. Here are some of the things included:

  • 10 adventures in the CA Desert
  • 10 Earth Science Lessons
  • 10 Hands-On Science Activities
  • 10 Coloring Pages
  • 1 Sticker Map
  • Reward Tickets
  • 10 Scavenger Hunts
  • Journal Pages

More Ladder Canyon Favorites, Can you Spot it?

Ladder Canyon bonus! If you keep your eyes alert you will see some of the unique and incredible things that make Ladder Canyon so incredible.


Cairns are stacks of rocks made by hikers to help them find their way back from a long hike in a new area. Don’t make cairns for fun. Hikers can become lost if too many cairns are randomly made.

Cairns Ladder Canyon
Cairns Ladder Canyon


The ocotillo is one of the tallest desert plants, growing up to 15 feet tall. It has long, shallow roots that spread in all directions. Red flowers grow on its stem tips in the spring. It has hundreds of little leaves that it sheds when there's a drought, then grows back when it rains. Keep a close eye for them as you reach the top of Ladder Canyon. 



Quartz is the second most common mineral in the earth's crust. Quartzes come in many colors and have been used for thousands of years to make jewelry. Found in the ground and canyon walls, they usually look like crystals. Most sandy beaches have weathered bits of quartz mixed into it.


Yellow Palo Verde

The yellow palo verde has tiny yellowish green leaves which it drops when the weather gets too hot or dry. This tree has chlorophyll in the bark, giving it a green color and making it capable of photosynthesis (making its own food using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide) even without leaves!

yellow palo verde
yellow palo verde__Bureau of Land Management__Flickr

Dry Waterfall

Dry waterfalls are the skeletal remains of a waterfall. At Ladder Canyon, you can climb the dry waterfalls using ladders. During a rainstorm, water will flood the canyon, bringing the dry waterfall to life! As the rains stop, the water will evaporate, leaving the dry waterfall behind.

Dry Waterfall Ladder Canyon
Dry Waterfall and First Ladder of Ladder Canyon Hike

Ladder Canyon is a really fun desert  adventure. Families and friends alike will love this hike. Just be prepared for the desert heat. Yes this is the desert, pack extra water and snacks and know you limits. It's ok to take a break, it is hot! I hope you have a great time making new exciting memories.

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