Looking to hike the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon trail near Palm Springs, California? This hiking guide covers all of the details for the hike!
After hiking many trails all around the United States, the hiking experiences that tend to stick out in our minds are the ones that offer a unique experience. Whether it’s a slot canyon in Utah, iron rungs in Maine, or rock scrambling in Virginia, we love getting to push ourselves a bit and experience a trail that is different from most others.
So while near Palm Springs, California, we knew we had to hike Ladder Canyon. This hike not only has 6 ladders to climb, which are equally thrilling and fun, but also has a slot canyon and a large canyon (called Painted Canyon), making it a very fun and unique hike.
Watch us hike Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon near Palm Springs, California
But there is a lot to know before attempting this hike for yourself! And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike Ladder Canyon near Palm Springs, including the sandy road to get to the trailhead, tips for the hike, what to expect, and more!
Looking for more things to do in California?
- 3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
- 3 Days in San Diego (Things to Do + Where to Eat)
- Exploring Redwoods National and State Parks
- 3 Days in Lake Tahoe
- The Best Day Hike in Yosemite: The Four Mile Trail + Panorama Trail
- All of our California Guides
- All of our California Vlogs
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About Ladder Canyon
Ladder Canyon is located in the Mecca Wilderness, a little over an hour east of Palm Springs. This hike takes you through slot canyons and is known for its ladders, which help guide you up through different levels of the canyon. These ladders are all similar to the metal ladders you may have at home and vary in height.
There are a total of six ladders and half of them you’ll go up, while the other half you’ll go down. Four of them are on the actual ladder canyon portion of the trail and if you choose to go down through Painted Canyon (which we recommend), you’ll encounter two more. However, all of them (except for one or two) are NOT attached to anything, which kind of freaked us out a bit. They were a bit wobbly, but we thankfully had no issues with the ladder falling down. 🙂
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
We unfortunately saw a LOT of graffiti on this hike, which was really frustrating. PLEASE do not do this!
Ladder Canyon Trail Stats
Miles (roundtrip): 4.4 (not fully accurate, more on that below)
Elevation: 820 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
While there are a few route options you could take to hike Ladder Canyon, the most popular option is to combine Ladder Canyon with Painted Canyon. This hike starts at the Ladder Canyon trailhead and takes you through a gravelly wash for about 0.4 miles, before following a rock arrow into the entrance of the canyon, which is where the fun begins!
After the ladder canyon portion, this hike goes along the ridge trail, which has great views of the area, before hiking down into Painted Canyon for the rest of the way. You could technically do this hike in reverse, but we think it’s better to go clockwise, where you’ll do most ladders first and hike through the canyon at the end.
According to our AllTrails app, this route ended up being 5.6 miles for us, so quite a bit longer than listed. We also have read reviews about others tracking longer, so we don’t believe it was a glitch. We were able to finish the hike in just under 3 hours, with lots of photo stops!
Other Route Options
Ladder + Rope Canyon
Miles (roundtrip): 2.1
Elevation gain: 270 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
A popular and even more difficult route for this hike is to combine Rope Canyon and Ladder Canyon. As the name implies, Rope Canyon involves using ropes to climb up or down different levels of a canyon.
We personally didn’t feel comfortable doing this route, so we stuck to the one above, but for those with great upper body strength and no fear of heights, we hear it’s a blast! If you choose to go this route, we have heard it is best to go UP the ropes and DOWN the ladders.
Go back the way you came
If you aren’t that interested in Painted Canyon and just want to hike up and down ladders, you could also hike Ladder Canyon in both directions! This would be about 4 miles round trip and would include eight total ladder experiences.
One of the ladders would be a bit tricky to get down, but the nice thing about going this route is that you will have already done them and can assess if you feel comfortable returning the same way or continuing onto Painted Canyon.
When to hike Ladder Canyon
The Ladder Canyon hike can technically be done year round, but with the summer bringing scorching midday temperatures over 100 degrees, we highly recommend doing this hike in the late fall-early spring, when temperatures are more tolerable. This hike has very little coverage from the sun, so starting early in the morning any time of the year will be the most comfortable.
Besides the temperature, one very important thing to know is that you should never do this hike in the rain or with rain in the forecast. Like all slot canyons, Ladder Canyon is very susceptible to flash floods, which can occur year round.
Make sure to check the weather reports before your visit to ensure there is no rain in the area…even rain miles away can flood the slot canyon.
What to Bring to Ladder Canyon
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But for this specific area, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
On this hike you will be squeezing through some tight spaces and crawling over and under some rocks, so packing light is a good idea! Our backpacks loaded with camera gear proved to be a bit tricky at times.
This hike is very exposed to the sun, so make sure to pack lots of water! We love our 3L Camelbak bladders, which makes it easy to drink while moving.
We’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails map before you go. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to download maps, which is $30 a year and so worth it. You do not want to get lost out here!
Things to know before visiting Ladder Canyon
The road to the trailhead
We almost did not do this hike and it was because of the road to get to it. To get to the trailhead you’ll have to drive on Painted Canyon Road, which is about 5 miles of dirt, gravel, and sand.
When you first enter the road, there is a sign that says “passable by 4×45 vehicles only.” We had read reviews of people getting stuck, but also reviews of people saying it wasn’t bad and that all types of cars made it, so we didn’t know what to believe! But after talking to a friend who had just driven it and her telling us we’d be fine, I was able to convince Adam to give it a go.
This was the most nerve wracking part of the entire hike for Adam, but thankfully everything turned out okay! The road was very washboarded, so we took it really slow and tried to avoid the sides of the road, where the sand was a lot higher. The parking lot did have some deeper sand spots, so make sure to pay close attention there as well.
But overall, our non 4×4 Sprinter van made it just fine and we did see all types of cars attempting the road. Please drive this at your own risk and ensure that you’ve read recent reports and are prepared in case you get stuck.
One good thing to know is that there is no cell service along the road or at the trailhead, so if you do get stuck you’ll need to catch a ride with someone back to town.
Dogs are not allowed
The ladders would be extremely difficult with a dog, so please do not bring them on this trail.
Curious what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on a hike? Read this guide about how we travel with a dog.
This definitely isn’t the most narrow slot canyon there is, but it does get tight in some spots. Watch our video, see our photos below, and read reports to judge for yourself if you’re comfortable doing this hike.
As always, it’s a good idea to start early to beat the heat and the crowds. It wouldn’t be much fun waiting in line for your turn to go up the ladders, get photos, etc. We started at sunrise and had the entire hike to ourselves until the very last portion by the trailhead.
You can boondock near or at the trailhead
While you can boondock along the Painted Canyon Road (after this point), we didn’t see many spots that weren’t sandy and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. We ended up driving to the trailhead and sleeping there, along with another van. Even if you don’t have a van, you could likely tent camp here (we did not see signs saying you couldn’t) so that you can get an early start the next morning.
There are no restrooms at the trailhead, but there are some shortly beforehand. Just be careful getting in and out of this area! It looked a tad sandier than the main road.
Our Experience hiking Ladder Canyon
Here is a recap of our experience hiking both Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon, broken down by the different sections of the hike!
Trailhead to the start of Ladder Canyon
From the trailhead, the trail starts out in a sandy/gravelly wash between the Painted Canyon walls. This portion of the trail is very wide and easy, although walking on this type of terrain always seems to take us a bit longer and we feel like we have to exert more energy to move quickly, since our feet sink more into the ground.
After about 0.4 miles of walking through the canyon, the area opens up a bit and to the left there is an arrow made out of rocks, pointing you into Ladder Canyon. This entrance to the canyon is very rocky and at first it seems confusing how to get into it.
Adam decided to just climb over some rocks into the canyon, but I ended up finding the first ladder and climbed up that (it seemed more fun that way!) into Ladder Canyon. This ladder is pretty short and takes you up into a hole through some rocks, which was pretty cool!
After the first ladder, we were officially in Ladder Canyon! We had to immediately scramble up more rocks and make it to the second ladder, which was one that you go down. It’s not too tall or scary, but it was a bit wobbly and figuring out how to turn your body to go down a ladder is always a tad awkward.
From ladder number two, we continued through the canyon, going into a slot canyon before arriving at the third ladder, which was definitely our least favorite one. This ladder was the tallest of them all and seemed very steep (to us at least). It was also missing a rung, so we had to stretch our legs real good to get up onto it. While for some this one may not be scary, just the combination of the height, vertical-ness, and the fact that it was not attached, kind of freaked us out.
We continued through a slot canyon for a bit, which reminded us so much of our time in Utah before making it to the fourth ladder, which is the final one in this part of the hike. This ladder isn’t nearly as bad as the third in our opinion, but the top part was a bit awkward, with a tight space to squeeze through.
While the third ladder did scare us a bit, we were pretty sad when we finished the fourth one and thought that there were no more ladders left (don’t worry, we were wrong)! We really enjoyed this part of the hike and wish it was a bit longer. The ladder part ended up only being a mile or so, just to give you a better idea of how long to expect to be in there.
After the ladders we continued on the trail, which turns into the Ridge Trail. We started out walking through more of the canyon, whose walls were getting lower, before climbing up a bit to the ridge, where we had amazing views of the area!
From up here we could see the mountains near Palm Springs, more of the Mecca Wilderness, and even the Salton Sea! While the ladders are a big draw of this hike, this view was a great surprise and only made it better!
After walking along the Ridge Trail for a bit, we finally tucked down into the final part of the trail, Painted Canyon. This canyon has tall walls with cool, colorful striations, which we assume gives it the name “painted.” This is probably the longest part of the hike and as we mentioned earlier, can feel longer because it’s harder to walk in sand and gravel.
The canyon itself was really neat, but what made it extra exciting is that we came across two more ladders! We assumed we were done with them, so this was the best surprise! Both of these ladders require you to go down them and one of them was partially attached to the rock, which made us feel a bit safer.
After finishing the final two ladders, it’s a straightforward hike back to the trailhead. Up until the part where Ladder Canyon begins, close to the parking area, we didn’t see a SINGLE person on this hike, which was incredible! But it was definitely getting busier, so for the ultimate experience, make sure to start early so you can truly enjoy this adventure!
We are also happy to report that we did not get stuck on the road on the way out either!
Other things to do near Ladder Canyon
Looking for more things to do nearby? Here are some other spots we checked out within an hour or so drive!
Visit Joshua Tree National Park
The Ladder Canyon Trail is about 30-40 minutes from the south entrance of Joshua Tree and about 2 hours from the northern entrance. To learn more about things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, watch how we spent one day there and also read our complete guide to the park (coming soon)!
Get a date shake!
Did you know that California grows 90% of the dates in the United States? The Coachella Valley, near Palm Springs, is full of date farms and no trip to the area is complete without a date shake! A date shake is a mixture of dates and vanilla ice cream and sort of tastes like caramel. It is so creamy, rich, and delicious! We highly recommend going to Shields Date Garden for a date shake!
Visit the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California and sits at 236 feet below sea level. While it used to be a large resort area, over time it has become contaminated and now has 50% more salinity than the ocean.
During our road trip to Joshua Tree we visited Bombay Beach, which is a former resort town which still has 200 residents and also features some unique art and sculptures along the beach. We weren’t sure what to expect and heard mixed things about the Salton Sea (warning: it has an odor), but we really enjoyed seeing the art here!
Check out the Galleta Meadows sculptures in Borrego Springs
Another very cool spot in this area of California is the Galleta Meadows Sculptures, which are 130 sculptures in the desert that you can drive to (this map is helpful). These sculptures started in 2008 when Dennis Avery, who owns the land, thought it would be cool to add large sculptures and artist Ricardo Breceda brought the vision to life.
There are sculptures of an elephant, serpent, bear, dinosaurs, horses, and so much more! The original ones were inspired by animals that lived millions of years ago in the Anza-Borrego area during the Plio-Pleistocene age, with newer ones representing more of the history of the area or just random things.
Ready to hike the Ladder Canyon Trail?
Pin this Hiking Ladder Canyon near Palm Springs, California guide to help plan your trip!