Hiking The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Last Updated on: 5th November 2023, 07:22 pm

While easily one of the most thrilling hikes in southern California, the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail often gets overlooked. It’s not a part of any major park system, nor is it simple to reach. But considering how it’s right in between Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, outdoor enthusiasts visiting the two should definitely include it in their itineraries.

While I’d expected this to mainly be a slot canyon hike with ladders, the actual slot canyon portion makes up just a fraction of the entire loop. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and varied the views were throughout the hike, with the trail even taking you up along the canyon rim.

In the following guide, we’ll be covering everything you need to know to hike the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, from essential preparation info to a detailed description of the hike itself.

Also be sure to check the end of the article for details on transport and where to stay in the area.

About This Hike

The trail as seen on AllTrails

THE BASICS: The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail is part of the Mecca Hills Wilderness Area on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.

It’s located between Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park, so you can stop and do this hike on your way from one park to another.

Access to the trailhead requires driving down a 4.7-mile unpaved road which you can learn more about below.

In Ladder Canyon, you’ll encounter several ladders, and it’s best to do this hike clockwise so you can climb up them rather than down. Most of the ladders are not attached to anything, though they do feel stable for the most part.

Exiting Ladder Canyon, you’ll then be walking along the rim above the canyon before descending into Painted Canyon.

In total, the loop trail is about 4.3 miles, or 7 km long, and it takes most people about 2.5 hours to complete.

While not covered in this guide, another canyon called Ropes Canyon runs parallel to Ladder Canyon, which you can learn more about further below.

RECOMMENDED APPS: You can find this hike clearly labeled on AllTrails or onX Backcountry. In either case, you’ll need a subscription to use the apps offline in this remote area, and don’t forget to download the map in advance.

While there are numerous arrows throughout the trail, it’s always beneficial to have an app to be 100% sure you’re headed in the right direction.

WHAT TO BRING: Bring tons of water – even more than you think you’d need if you’re hiking in summer. While the slot canyon portion of the hike is largely shaded, a majority of the loop has you walking under direct sun.

With that said, remember that you’ll be climbing up and down several ladders, so be sure to carry your gear in a way that won’t inhibit your movement. On that note, trekking poles would only be a hindrance.

STAY SAFE: When people talk about the heat of Death Valley – widely regarded as the hottest place of the world – they’re really talking about the temperature at Furnace Creek, the park’s main ‘town.’

But given its elevation of 

Ladder Cayon

Arriving at the parking lot, use your app to point in the right direction. The signage is not entirely clear, but the canyon closer to the lot is Ladder Canyon, while the fork to the left is Ropes Canyon.

As mentioned, most people will want to enter Ladder Canyon and then do the full loop hike clockwise, as this allows you to climb up a majority of the ladders rather than down. 

But as we’ll cover below, there will be one tricky ladder you’ll need to climb down near the end.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

After walking through this open part of the canyon for a little while, it won’t be long before you encounter your first challenge of the day. Luckily, there’s a huge arrow comprised of stones to guide you in the right direction, but at first glance, it’s not clear what it’s pointing to.

Believe it or not, the large pile of boulders is indeed where you’re supposed to go!

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

After ascending a tiny ladder, carefully climb up the rocks. Before long, you’ll encounter a much longer ladder situated within a narrow gap.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

As mentioned above, many of the ladders are attached to absolutely nothing. While it sounds scary, I fortunately found them to be quite stable.

Needless to say, those with a fear of heights might want to sit this one out.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Stability aside, a big part of the challenge of Ladder Canyon is that some of the ladders are too short. Once you reach the top, you’ll still have to do some scrambling to get to the next portion of the hike.

As challenging as it can be, it would surely be a lot more scary coming from the opposite direction!

While having enough water is important, try not to hike with anything too bulky that could make this part of the hike any more risky than it already is.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

While, as the name suggests, climbing up ladders is the main highlight here, Ladder Canyon also gives hikers a typical slot canyon experience.

Slot canyons are always fun to traverse, as not only are the rock formations interesting, but you never quite know what’s around the corner.

Eventually, you’ll encounter the final ladder of this section of the hike. And as far as I could tell, this was the only one that happened to be bolted to the rock.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

By now you’ll have made a significant elevation gain, and you’ll find the canyon getting both wider and shorter. 

Given the location of the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, most people will have already visited either Joshua Tree or Anza-Borrego earlier that morning.

That was my case, and arriving at this open and exposed portion of the hike coincided with the hottest part of the day. And it would only get hotter from here.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Another canyon called Ropes Canyon runs parallel to Ladder Canyon. And as you walk along, you should see a sign in stone pointing you in that direction. 

But if you’re following the loop trail covered in this guide, keep heading straight, gradually making your way uphill.

For more info about Ropes Canyon, check the end of this hiking guide.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Along the Rim

Eventually, you’ll find yourself entirely above the canyon – a very cool part of this hike that often gets overshadowed by the ladder aspect. While there are numerous alternating paths up here, you’ll find more helpful arrows.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

As mentioned, it can get extremely hot up here – especially if you’re doing this hike in summer. During my visit, it was already well over 100 °F by this time of the day. But I have a high tolerance for heat and plenty of experience hiking in these temperatures, so I’m pretty familiar with my body’s limits.

But if you aren’t, then either don’t attempt this hike in summer or be sure to start it first thing in the morning.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

It was fascinating to be able to look straight down into the Painted Canyon. And as I got even higher in the hills, I got clearer views of the distant mountains and even part of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest inland lake, but its existence was also an accident. It was formed as a result of an irrigation canal bursting in the early 20th century, with the water accumulating in the natural basin.

Once a popular place for people to come and vacation, it’s now gradually shrinking. Furthermore, it’s become terribly polluted. The lake is now sustained by runoff from nearby farms which is so toxic that the water has become uninhabitable for fish.

It’s unclear what the future holds for the Salton Sea, but for the time being, it makes for an interesting sight from atop this desert canyon.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail
Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

The hike above the canyon is pretty straightforward overall, but there are some places where the trail forks into two, so it would also be wise to keep your eye on AllTrails or onX.

Eventually, you’ll encounter a relatively steep downhill section that will take you straight into the Painted Canyon. Next, all you have to do is continue south in order to make it back to the parking lot.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

The Painted Canyon

The Painted Canyon is arguably the easiest portion of the loop trail. But it can be a bit more tiring than it first seems. Despite being flat, it’s also very sandy.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

The Painted Canyon is named as such due to its broad palette of colors, which includes brown, pink, red, white, black and more. 

The Mecca Hills are an uplift largely comprised of granite, schist and gneiss, and different layers of stone can result in beautiful striped patterns.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

One particularly interesting section of rock is comprised of black-and-white stripes that resemble a zebra. While, as mentioned, hiking in the afternoon is not advised for most, midday is ideal as far as lighting goes.

Though the Painted Canyon is mostly flat, near the end you’ll encounter one more ladder. But this time, you’ll have to climb down it.

This is a rare ladder to be fastened with rope. But unless you’re very tall, you won’t easily be able to step onto the ladder from the edge. Instead, you’ll have to carefully slide down before your feet reach the top step.

Once at the bottom, it’s a then a fairly quick and straightforward walk to the parking lot.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Be sure not to forget the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail when planning out your itinerary for Joshua Tree. 

While it’s not part of the National Park and has a very different look and feel, I found this hike to be among the most fun and memorable hikes in the general area, so don’t miss it on your way in or out of the park.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

Ropes Canyon?

While I wasn’t aware of it before my visit, the Mecca Hills are home to yet another trail called Ropes Canyon, located to the west of Ladder Canyon. While not part of the standard Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail that many people do, you could potentially include it in your own variation of the hike.

Given the layout of the canyons, you would not be able to add it to the larger loop hike. If you were to hike through Ropes Canyon as part of a loop hike, you’d need to either leave out Ladder Canyon or Painted Canyon. Or, you’d need to hike through Ropes Canyon as its own out-and-back hike.

The out-and-back hike on its own should take about 75 minutes roundtrip. But be sure to check for updates before hiking, however, as some of the ropes are said to occasionally break.

Upon entering the area, I met a group of hikers who told me they’d just done Ropes Canyon and that it was a lot of fun. But not having done the hike myself, I can’t provide any specific tips. In any case, it would be wise to thoroughly research the hike in advance instead of making a spontaneous decision to try it.

Ropes Canyon (in black) as shown in relation to the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon loop trail on the onX Backcountry app

Additional Info

The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail is situated near Mecca, California, to the north of the Salton Sea. It’s right in between Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park, so you can stop and do this hike on your way from one park to another.

Whichever direction you’re coming from, make your way down Box Canyon Rd. and then turn onto Painted Canyon Rd., heading northwest. This is an unpaved road which lasts for about 4.7 miles.

Generally speaking, either a 4×4 or AWD SUV is recommended for this journey, so it would be wise to rent one if you don’t own one.

From my experience, the road was pretty flat and relatively easy to traverse, and I’m guessing a regular sedan could’ve done it. But the thing with dirt roads is that conditions are always dependent on recent weather.

At the time of writing, I’ve come across recent reviews saying that the road is in a terrible state due to damage from Hurricane Hilary. That’s why you should always check for recent updates (such as the latest AllTrails or Google reviews) before making the journey.

If you’re planning on hiking the Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon Loop Trail, there’s a good chance you’ll be staying at Joshua Tree that night or the previous night.

There are two main towns that give you easy access to the park. To the north of the North Entrance is the town of Twentynine Palms, where the highest-rated accommodations are all rental homes.

Popular options include Cozy Fresh Desert Hideaway, Desert Twilight 29, The Joshua Tree Forest and Lovegrass by AvantStay.

While not as highly rated, there are a few small motels in town, such as Harmony Motel, Oasis Inn and Motel 6.

From Twentynine Palms, about a twenty-five drive west down 29 Palms Highway is the town of Yucca Valley. From here, you have easy access to the West Entrance.

This is where I stayed, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a Walmart right in town. This is probably the only option in this remote part of California to buy whatever outdoor equipment you might need.

Again, the most popular places to stay here are rental homes, such as Yucca Valley Oasis, Sweet Suite in the Desert and The Loft.

The few hotel options, meanwhile, include Super 8 and America’s Best Value Inn.

In regards to staying within the park, there are plenty of campsites to choose from. None of them, however, have showers. You can learn more about camping at Joshua Tree here.

Many people hiking the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail will have stayed at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park the previous night. Anza-Borrego is a rare State Park to allow free dispersed camping, similar to how most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land works. This means you can simply pitch your tent anywhere you see fit and spend the night there.

There are some rules, however, such as no campfires and no camping too close to a water source. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a detailed list of rules on the official website, so you may want to call in advance or confirm at the Visitor Center.

While the idea of free camping sounded appealing to me at first, it wasn’t long before I considered the downsides: lack of toilets and running water, or even a table on which to cook.

So in the end, we camped at the Palm Canyon Campground near the Visitor Center and Palm Canyon Trail. It cost $33 per night, for which we got a little shelter, picnic table and access to toilets and showers.

The showers, however, cost an additional fee. For one dollar, you can buy two shower tokens, each of which gives you two minutes of water. At least the water was warm.

As mentioned above, the experience was marred by the extreme winds that day. The hard desert ground could not take normal tent stakes no matter how hard you tried to pound them in. And so we had no choice but to search for large rocks to place in the tent to weigh it down.

The intense wind persisted throughout the night, and I barely got any sleep. And I woke up to find that the tent had largely collapsed on me.

Most people worry about potential rain when camping, but out in the desert, wind is something you definitely have to consider. I’d later have a similar experience in Death Valley. But having learned my lesson at Anza-Borrego, I drove to the nearest town and booked a hotel.

Needless to say, you’ll have a much better experience if you’re sleeping in an RV rather than a tent. If you don’t have one, consider renting one.

I noticed that some of the campsites at Anza-Borrego had large stone walls on one side which would’ve helped a lot, though there were only several and they were all occupied. Most campsites, on the other hand, are completely open on all sides.

If camping is not your thing, there are actually quite a few hotels to choose from within Anza-Borrego. The most popular option seems to be the Borrego Valley Inn, located in the heart of Borrego Springs. A bit further south, La Casa del Zorro is another highly-rated option.

Other hotels in the area, meanwhile, include Borrego Springs Resort and Spa and Stanlunds Inn and Suites, both of which have positive reviews.

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