Coachella Valley Adventure: Climbing Ladders in the Mecca Hills Wilderness

Not far from Indio’s date farms, the Mecca Hills Wilderness shelters a maze of pastel-hued canyons formed by movement along the San Andreas Fault. The Pacific Plate and the North American Plate collide here—sometimes violently—pushing up layers of eroded rock that have been sculpted by wind and water. 

You can see this geological wonderland close-up with a walk through Big Painted Canyon, a deep cut in the earth’s crust. Canyon walls glow in shades of rose, pink, red, purple and green, the vivid palette caused by fault movement depositing minerals from marine, desert and river sources. The canyon floor is punctuated by an occasional smoke tree, its seeds deposited by flash floods.

From the same trailhead, a 3-mile jaunt through Ladder Canyon is pure Disneyland-style fun. This slot canyon’s slick walls, giant boulders, and dry waterfalls might stymie most explorers, but thanks to a series of carefully placed metal ladders, any agile hiker can make their way up-canyon. You simply clamber up a ladder, squeeze through a narrow slot between sandstone walls, duck your head under a boulder, and repeat. (The ladders are maintained by a group of local volunteers, but always check for sturdiness before climbing.)

A path runs along the rim above both canyons, connecting a 5-mile loop. The rim trail meanders through moonscape-like terrain dotted with hundreds of towering ocotillo plants, which frame a view of the Salton Sea shimmering to the south.

Where: End of Painted Canyon Rd. (off 66th Ave./Box Canyon Rd.), Mecca
Info: 760-833-7100,

Mecca Hills canyon