Hiking Mecca is probably not a phrase you hear too often. Would you need a permit to do this? Do you need to renew your passport? You wouldn’t need either of these items if you’re in the United States. Mecca is actually a small town near Palm Springs, in the heart of the California desert. The hike is in the Mecca Hills and follows the Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon trails that will take you through slot canyons and give you a view of the nearby Salton Sea.
“Thanks to the restless San Andreas Fault, the geologic formations of Mecca Hills Wilderness are among the most unusual sites of their kind in the world. Entire regions are exposed layers of eroded rock, some over 600 million years old, and are a source of valuable information to scientists about the effects of tremors on the earth’s crust. The area is a badlands labyrinth, a natural maze of small, narrow, steep canyons. Colorful Painted Canyon runs in a general north-south path through the middle of the Wilderness. Sandy washes sprinkled with ironwood, smoke trees, and paloverde divide the area, while ocotillo squat on gentler slopes and the tops of mesas. Bighorn sheep occasionally cross over from the Orocopia Mountains on the east, where they find more water. You may see spotted bats, desert tortoises, and prairie falcons. The non-Wilderness corridor of Box Canyon Road splits off a small southern section of the area in which you’ll find Sheep Hole Oasis and Hidden Springs Canyon (reliable sources for water). If you look closely, you’ll discover caves, known locally as grottoes.” – alltrails.com
Directions: From Interstate 10 in Indio, exit south on 86 and drive about 10 miles to 62nd Avenue near the town of Mecca. Continue east 2 miles to Johnson Street and then turn right and proceed another 2 miles to 66th Ave. and turn left. The road changes its name to Box Canyon Road where you will continue until you get to the Painted Canyon Road turnoff on the left. Take Painted Canyon until it ends.
Painted Canyon is almost 5 miles of dirt road that is passable by most cars. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is not required during most days. Although I wouldn’t try this in a low profile vehicle. During recent rain, the road can turn into a muddy path and I would not recommend it unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Take the road until it comes to an end at the makeshift parking lot. If you need to use the restroom, well… there are no facilities here or along this hike. I would recommend doing it here before the hike since there is more cover here than on the trail.
As you approach the end of the road, the trailhead will be on your right which is the larger Painted Canyon. After a couple of minutes, the start of the box canyon will be on the left.
If you haven’t been here before you may not recognize it as a set of boulders actually hides the opening (pictured above). Look for rocks on the ground that form an arrow in the direction of this narrow canyon. Hikers have marked the trails with these directional rocks on the ground. At the start, you’ll have to scramble over these boulders and then traverse a short narrow ledge before you enter the box canyon… so much fun! After a short distance you will come across the first two ladders of the trail. These ladders have been left here by local hikers to help people through the trail. Most are metal with some wooden ladders that are mostly in good shape but be careful of missing rungs or broken rungs. The canyon is so narrow, only one person at-a-time can pass these portions. The trail slowly gains elevation and you then find yourself out of the canyon as the route takes you atop the hills of Mecca.
Here, you can see the Salton Sea and the surrounding mountains. It’s a great place to take a break and admire the rock formations and the surroundings. Once you’ve taken in the vistas, continue along the ridge, look for the arrows to direct you. The Painted Canyon will be visible again along your right and the trail will get you back on this canyon shortly. Before you’re back on the canyon, you’ll have to traverse a steep section of a hill and I advised you to take this portion slowly and make sure you have good footing all the way down.
Most hikers will follow this canyon back to the trailhead and the parking area. If you still have the energy and want more of an adventure, there is another canyon you can hike. Follow Painted Canyon toward the parking area, passing the stone-stackings left behind by other hikers and the “leopard rock.” Shortly after this rock, you will come to another canyon on the left. Look for the rocks shaped like on arrow pointing in this canyons direction.
The main lasso shaped trail is about 4.5 miles and if you add this additional canyon, the hike will be about 7.25 miles. Here, we came to the highest ladder on our route, maybe 30 feet. This slot canyon is more challenging than the earlier one and if you’re not physically fit I would not recommend this section. We had to climb more ladders and traverse boulders without help of ladders. The elevation gain eventually takes you to another hill and the end of this section of the trail. The cool breeze was a much needed relief of the heat of the day and the heat exerted in climbing this canyon. The pure silence of the location is therapeutic. Catch your breath and get an eye-full of the panoramic views as you will have to make your way down. The hike down can be more dangerous as you will have to work your way down the same boulders without the ladders, climbing down without seeing your next step on the rocks. Once you’ve made your way down the high ladder, take a left back down Painted Canyon toward the trailhead and the parking area. The only thing left will be one small ladder to descend as you admire the surroundings and make your way back to your vehicle. Photos never do it justice so I’ve added a video to help give a feel of this wonderful adventure.
This trail is unique in its terrain and a great way to do a little canyoneering without investing in all the gear. Did I mention this canyon is inside the San Andreas Fault, the fault that is supposed to break California into two pieces. I did this trail with my local hiking group and I would advise going as a group to assist each other. This hike is a unique adventure and I can’t wait to do it again!