We hiked in Painted Canyon, in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, and visited two narrow Slot Canyons named Rope Canyon and Ladder Canyon. Rope Canyon has several fixed ropes which allow you to continue past the steep sections, while Ladder Canyon has aluminum ladders to do the same thing. On the first day we simply hiked around the perimeter of the canyons, and on the second day we went uphill in Rope Canyon, then came back downhill through Ladder Canyon. We had a ton of fun!
Getting there was a three hour drive from San Diego, east across the Anza-Borrego Desert, then further on toward the Salton Sea and north to the city of Mecca. We decided that mid-December was a fine time to visit the desert, and the forecast was for good weather, not too hot and not too cold. The Mecca Hills Wilderness is interesting in that it is on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) where regulations are typically a bit less than other federal lands. We had heard that we could camp along the dirt road leading into the Painted Canyon Trail, so our plan was to drive out the first day, take a general hike in the late afternoon and camp in the car that night. The following day we’d wake up early and check out the two main attractions: Rope Canyon and Ladder Canyon.
It turned out that we took a bit longer to get there than we’d planned, so that we arrived at the parking area about 2pm. I had a five mile hike planned, and it got dark around 5pm, so we had to hustle to get ready. And then we headed out, hiking uphill on what I named the “Easy” Canyon (thanks to open street map which called it easy).
At first, it was wide and sandy, and there were even tire tracks in the wilderness area (a big no-no) because the large stones near the parking lot had been moved, allowing the off-roaders illicit access. Eventually, as we hiked forward, the canyon grew too narrow and the tracks ceased. It got narrow enough that it was almost slot-like, but not quite. There were a number of narrow side canyons that Vicki really wanted to explore, but I had to keep reminding her of our time constraints and she relented. Maybe some other day.
Eventually, we came to a large stone cairn and a side trail leading steeply upward. It was too steep for Vicki’s liking. I checked my GPS and determined that this was the place. We had no choice. So up we went, and arrived on top, at what is called the Ridge Trail. There was a pleasant breeze, which was nice after the hot climb. We headed south on the ridge trail to what was called a Lookout Spot on my map. We had a greet view all around. The Mecca Hills Highpoint was behind us to the northeast, and the Coachella Valley was to the southwest. Toro Peak and San Jacinto Peak were along the horizon to the northwest. All around us were the signs of deep, winding canyons. There was an awful lot to explore in this wilderness! But we had only so much time.
Panorama video from the ridge trail at the top of Painted Canyon
Hiking the Easy Canyon was really just a way to make a loop out of the true hike of the day: Painted Canyon. We found the trail that led from the ridge into Painted Canyon and went down into the shadows, deep below the canyon walls. The bottom was sandy and wide, with countless footprints and tracks. Thus far, we hadn’t seen anyone this far out here, so where did all those prints come from? It must get really busy on the weekends, we guessed. That’s why we came out here mid-week, to avoid the crowds.
We started hiking down the canyon. We didn’t like sloggin through the loose sand, but at least it was downhill. And soon we stopped worrying about that, as the walls of the canyon became much more colorful. There were deep reds, and subtle greens, and even some interesting black and white striped layers of harder rock down below the sandstone. Painted Canyon, indeed.
As we continued, we came upon something that I wasn’t expecting: Ladders! I thought the ladders were only in “Ladder Canyon” but obviously not. There were steep drop-offs due to erosion in this canyon, and the only safe way to get up or down was to use a ladder. It turns out that the Rancho Casa Blanca Hiking Club had provided these ladders. You could tell that they were old, retired ladders, which had seen better days, but they were strong and safe enough.
GoPro video of me down-climbing the upper ladder in Painted Canyon
After the two ladders. the canyon got wide and boring again. It also started getting noticeably darker. The sun was setting out there somewhere. We weren’t worried as we didn’t have far to go. We passed by the entrance to Ladder Canyon, but didn’t venture inside. We needed to get to the car and find a place to camp. And we arrived at the parking lot just as the clouds were turning colors in the western sky. Very pretty.
We drove back down Painted Canyon Road for a mile or three, with the car’s headlights on, and found a spot to camp near an official BLM pit toilet and campsite area. We parked the car, and took out our car-camping gear, which included a box of firewood and an old barbecue to contain the fire. Lighting fires on the ground in the desert is against the rules, so don’t do it. Use a container. The air cooled rapidly, and a chill breeze blew down the canyon, so we put on our warm layers. Then we set up the fire and boiled some water on the stove. We lit the fire and sat down in front of it in proper folding camping chairs! This car camping had its good points. We were sitting in the wind shadow of the car, so it was quite pleasant. We ate our dinner and enjoyed the evening. We hadn’t had a proper campfire while camping in several years. We were usually camping in places where it wasn’t allowed, or we were too tired from hiking all day. This was quite luxurious. We stayed up fairly late for once, as this was December and the nights were fourteen hours long. There’s only so long I can sleep.
We still woke up in the dark, just before dawn, and got dressed in the car. We ate breakfast and packed up everything as dawn arrived. And it was a pretty sight, with plenty of color in the high clouds that were drifting by overhead. I took a ton of photos, but I’m only showing one of them here.
We drove back up the road to the trailhead parking area. We had learned yesterday that the sand was deep and loose in that lot, making traction a concern, so we parked carefully to avoid the bad spots. Then I got our daypack ready and fired up the Delorme GPS, as well as the one on my phone. It has been my experience that GPS reception is particularly spotty in deep narrow canyons, so I figured that having two couldn’t hurt.
We hiked up Painted canyon a short distance to the entrance to Rope Canyon, which was somewhat hidden on the left (west) side of the bigger canyon. Vicki and I had discussed the order of the day, as in whether we should go up Rope Canyon and down Ladder Canyon, or vice-versa. In the end, going up Rope Canyon was thought to be better, because you can always go down if you get stuck, but you may not be able to get back up if there is a dangerous drop-off in front of you. So that was our plan. Vicki was leery of the ropes, but I told her that we could just turn around if she couldn’t make it. We’d go back and do Ladder Canyon instead.
So we headed into Rope Canyon and it started getting narrow right away. This was a proper slot canyon, all right! PLEASE NOTE: If you are even slightly obese, you may have a difficult time getting through Rope Canyon. I’m skinny, and I had to turn sideways more than once. Plus taking off the backpack, while pushing it on ahead of me, or handing it off to Vicki. This is NOT a fat man’s canyon.
After enjoying squeezing through some narrow spots, we came across a giant chockstone blocking our path. We looked for a way around it, but the footprints and scuff marks made it clear that the only way beyond was to crawl under it and scramble using our hands and knees. Fun!
GoPro video in as we hiked underneath the first chockstone
The second chockstone was even lower. I had to push the backpack in front of me, hand it off to Vicki, then crawl underneath the giant stone. This was pretty cool, and we were having a good time hiking such an interesting trail.
GoPro video as we crawled underneath yet another chockstone
Then, finally, we came to the first rope. I was wondering when the ropes would arrive, and now I knew why. There were tall cliff-like walls, or dry waterfalls, blocking forward progress. Without a rope that wall would’ve meant the end of our canyon exploration. I suppose that there could have been a ladder instead, but getting a ladder beyond the chockstones might have been an issue. Or maybe the hiking club simply wanted to use ropes.
Now, Vicki doesn’t have a huge amount of upper body strength, so this rope was a bit daunting. Luckily, it had a number of knots tied in it, for gripping, and there were a few spots on the wall to use as footholds. I got out the gloves and we put them on. No slipping allowed! And Vicki proceeded to climb the rope, slowly and carefully, stopping to rest where possible. “Woo hoo!” we shouted when she got to the top. I followed her up, and had some fun leaning back like I was rappelling down a cliff. One obstacle down! I checked out the rope at the top, and it was firmly bolted into to sandstone, although the braid in one spot was already fraying dangerously. But you don’t find that out until you get up there, of course.
GoPro video as Vicki climbs up one of the longer ropes in Rope Canyon
After the excitement of the first two long ropes, the canyon eases its slope a bit and we had some fun just walking through the wider zone. We kept looking upward, to see how deep the canyon was.
Eventually we came upon the final crux of Rope Canyon. Open Street Map says 20-foot rope at that spot. Now, I have my doubts about the actual height, as it was clearly less than 20 feet, but it was a long climb. And it was truly vertical. Vicki was feeling nervous, but she came up with a plan of attack and got started. I took a video of the climb, of course. This was too good to pass up! She managed to wedge herself into the wall wherever she could, chimneying her way up when her arm strength was lacking. And she made it! She bitterly complained about the “missing” knot at the top where she really wanted to get a final, safer grip. And before I could climb it she made me wait while she tied that extra knot she wanted. Even though she didn’t need it anymore. I used it, however. Thanks, Vicki!
Video of Vicki climbing the final difficult knotted rope in Rope Canyon at a vertical headwall
After using the rope to lift up our backpack, Vicki took a vertical video of me climbing the last rope
After that, the canyon widened significantly. It wasn’t a slot canyon any more. I check the GPS and there was a side trail up to the main Ridge Trail on the top of the canyon walls. We climbed it and looked back down. You could easily see where the slotted section of Rope Canyon began.
Then we headed back toward the parking area on the Ridge Trail (not that we could get down from up there) and were able to look down into Rope, Ladder, and Painted Canyons. The bird’s-eye perspective. Fun! We were also thankful that the clouds had arrived that day, because it stayed cool and shady while we were up on the exposed ridgetop.
Then we hiked back along the ridge to the point where we wanted to drop down into Ladder Canyon. There was a large stone cairn marking the spot. We decided to stop and have some lunch up there, which allowed us to thoroughly check out the views before dropping down into Ladder Canyon.
The upper section was fairly shallow and wide, and it was easy to hike. There were a couple of smaller ladders along the way. Descending ladders is always a bit sketchy, because you have to look down, and everything seems steeper. Also, you can’t always tell where your feet need to go. But we made it down OK. After that, the steeper, slot-like canyon began, and the ladders were placed in much more precarious positions. Sometimes you had to face outward initially to get onto the ladder (the top of which was below your feet) and then you needed to turn back around and face the ladder so that you could hold onto the rungs and rails. It was tricky, but fun, and we made it down them safely. One of them was particularly dangerous, as I discovered, because the second-to-last rung was completely missing! I was feeling all confident as I neared the bottom and then, boom! I almost fell on my butt as my foot missed the rung that wasn’t there. I was able to warn Vicki, luckily, and she had no problem at all.
GoPro video as both of us descend via a particularly steep and sketchy ladder
There were a few more ladders along the way as we headed toward the mouth of the canyon, which turned out to be clogged by a jumble of giant boulders. There was more than one path through the big stones, and there were even a few small ladders placed here and there along the way. We could see up ahead that we were almost back in Painted Canyon, and we were a bit sad that the slot canyons were over so soon. We wanted more ladders and ropes! These canyons were a lot of fun to hike.
Back in the main canyon, we saw a large arrow on the canyon floor made out of hundred of smaller stones. It was at least eight feet long, and was the only indication that the pile of boulders on the side canyon was anything other than a pile of boulders. That made me realize that I had seen no trail signs anywhere in this area. There was a kiosk with a trail map down in the parking area, but that was about it.
We made it back to the car just after noon. We had lucked out by starting early in the morning, because we had only seen a few people the entire day, and didn’t have to pass anyone in the slot canyon sections. This was convenient because of Social Distancing and the Covid pandemic that was still going on, late in 2020. The only risks we took were our usual ones, like falling down into canyons or over cliffs, or getting buried in rockslides, or hit on the head by falling rocks. The typical, everyday, run-of-the-mill risks that hikers and adventurers take every single day. No problem!
We got in the car and headed on home. It was a long drive, but we enjoyed travelling through the desert, so it was OK. We talked about the trip, and we had to admit that car camping wasn’t entirely bad, provided you could do it far away from noisy, crowded, public campgrounds. Sitting in real chairs and having a campfire was fine. As for the Mecca Hills Wilderness, we liked it a lot. There was more to explore, and we decided that we might come back here some day, even if it was only to bring other folks out here to see it. We had a blast on Rope Canyon (we would bring only skinny friends with us) and Ladder Canyon was a lot of fun, too. It had been a really good trip.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page