Ladder Canyon is the informal name given to a slotlike ravine incised into the sedimentary strata of the Mecca Hills near Indio. Several wooden or aluminum ladders have been placed at strategic spots within the canyon, to assist passages over "dry falls" (drop-offs) along the bottom.
Ladder Canyon is a tributary of the superbly scenic Painted Canyon, which worms its way into the Mecca Hills Wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The famed San Andreas Fault Zone passes right through here, giving a glimpse of what hundreds of miles of horizontal displacement and tens of miles of stretching (over many millions of years) can do to a landscape consisting of little else but stark rock formations. The loop hike suggested here includes both Ladder and Painted Canyons and measures 4.3 miles.
Drive east of Palm Springs on Interstate 10. Just past Indio veer right onto Highway 86S, a new four-lane expressway that takes you rapidly south, bypassing the towns of Coachella and Thermal. At a point 12 miles from the exit off I-10, turn left on Avenue 66 (State Highway 195) and proceed east 1 mile toward the community of Mecca. Make a left turn just before you reach railroad tracks, and go right at the next intersection in order to cross those tracks. On the far side, turn right again, remaining on Highway 195. Go 0.2 mile through the town center of Mecca and veer left, staying on Highway 195. You are again traveling east on Avenue 66. Proceed another 4 miles through irrigated cropland, and cross over the Coachella Canal. Drive just a little farther and look for the graded dirt road on the left signed "Painted Canyon." Continue 4.7 miles on that road, entering the canyon itself in the last mile and a half. The road ends at a turnaround and parking area at a junction between two major canyons.
On foot, start hiking into the narrow canyon with sheer sandstone walls on the right (northeast). At 0.4 mile, a slotlike ravine nearly blocked by fallen sandstone boulders (and possibly marked by a "Ladder Canyon" sign) can be seen along the canyon wall to the left. Some mild scrambling and clambering up several near-vertical ladders allow you to gain elevation quickly.
At 0.8 mile (from the start), there's a fork where the now-wider ravine divides into two nearly equal tributaries. Take the left fork for the easier route. By 1.5 miles you reach the head of the left-fork ravine and find yourself just below and west of a rounded ridge (a large rock cairn lies on a knoll to the left). An informal trail swings up that ridge and follows its course steadily uphill in the direction of some radio towers looming in the north. In the direction opposite the radio towers, a gorgeous view of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea unfolds as you climb.
At 2.0 miles, in a saddle on the ridge, the trail turns abruptly right and darts down a rocky slope into the wide, sandy wash of upper Painted Canyon. Descend that path and from then on enjoy the entirely downhill remainder of the hike. Painted Canyon deepens as you go, exposing a geological wonderland of primarily dark metamorphic rocks. At 3.3 miles, a ladder facilitates easy passage over an otherwise frightening descent over a dry fall in the main canyon. The rest is easygoing, on a wide bed of coarse sand past the Ladder Canyon turnoff and back to your car.