Hiking the Ladder Canyon Trail / Painted Canyon Trail loop was easily the most fun we had while hiking with kids in the Palm Springs area.
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The Ladder Canyon Trail and the Painted Canyon Trail can be combined to do a loop. Both hikes are very interesting in different ways and we recommend doing them as a loop, starting with the Ladder Canyon hike.
We almost didn’t do it as we were wondering, “is the Ladder Canyon hike safe for kids?”. Our kids are 4 & 6 and are very good hikers, but what happens if they climb up a ladder, but can’t get down? How will they deal with broken ladder rungs?
We decided to drive down and see it for ourselves. We were lucky to run into a Palm Springs local in the parking lot who had lots of experience with the Ladder Canyon & Painted Canyon Trail. She gave us a rundown of what to expect and her opinion was that the Ladder Canyon Trail with kids would be safe and a ton of fun, so we gave it a try!
Ladder Canyon Hike Overview
The Ladder Canyon hike begins as you walk into the gaping mouth of a wide canyon with towering cliff walls on both sides. The trail is flat and wide, making it super easy to just look around and be amazed by the beauty of this place. Plus, the canyon walls pin your kids in so you can let them run wild – where are they going to go?
After 0.4 miles (0.7km), you’ll see a huge arrow made from rocks lying on the canyon floor. This arrow points you towards the left canyon wall and signals the start of the Ladder Canyon trail.
You’ll need hiking shoes with good grips to scramble up the rocks as you ascend the bottom of the cliff wall to a small alcove. This is where the slot canyon begins, and you encounter the first of the four ladders within the Ladder Canyon.
The kids loved climbing (and descending) the ladders in Ladder Canyon; they both thought it was the coolest thing to do on a hike. The ladders are all metal painters’ ladders and are typically fastened to the canyon wall with some kind of strap. The ladders are not very tall, most are around 10 rungs high, with the tallest being around 15-17 rungs high.
Even without the ladders, the Ladder Canyon trail with kids is a ton of fun. Like a slot canyon, it’s very narrow with really high walls. The path has many twists and turns, making it super fun to walk through – our kids ran through it, laughing all the way.
Around the 1.2 mile (2km) mark, you emerge from Ladder Canyon to a ridge where you’ll be treated to some incredible views of the Mecca Hills Wilderness and beyond. From the ridge, you can see the Painted Canyon below, the Salton Sea, several other canyons and majestic mountains looming in the distance.
The ridge trail runs for about 1.2 miles (2km) before taking a sharp right-hand turn towards the start of the Painted Canyon Trail.
There is a short section of the trail descending from the ridge into the Painted Canyon which is quite steep with slippery gravel. Most people got down with very little issue, but there were a few who were having a difficult time. We descended it safely by walking down slowly with our feet sideways.
The Painted Canyon trail was a really fun way to get back to the parking lot. It’s a wide trail with a gentle descent through a canyon with multi-colored, towering walls.
As you’d imagine, the name Painted Canyon comes from the many colors of rock you’ll discover along the way. Some of our favorites were the pink quartz, the purple rocks and the huge areas that look like they were splotched by black and white paint.
It’s a really easy descent down with only two short ladders to contend with. There was a broken rung on each of the ladders, but the kids were light enough that they could step on the broken rungs and use them normally, so that turned out to be a non-issue.
We all had a ton of fun on the Ladder Canyon & Painted Canyon Trail – it’s one of the best hikes in Palm Springs. It’s a unique and beautiful hike, I’m glad we didn’t avoid it due to the perceived level of danger. Everyone needs to make their own risk assessment based on their family’s own capabilities, but it was well within our kid’s skill levels.
The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Trail Hike Statistics
Distance: The full round-trip distance of The Ladder Canyon / Painted Canyon loop trail is 4.9 miles (7.9km). If you are using a GPS to track your hike, don’t be surprised if the high canyon walls confuse your device and it shows you’ve gone more distance than you actually have.
Elevation Gain: For the most part, you won’t even notice any elevation gain on this hike as most of it is very gradual. The total elevation gain on this hike is 910 feet (277m), but aside from climbing ladders, we barely noticed the climb.
Difficulty: We’d rate the Ladder Canyon Trail / Painted Canyon Trail as a ‘moderate’ family hike, mostly due to its length and the element of climbing ladders. A family in reasonable shape should have no issues with this hike.
Duration: It took us 4 hours to complete the loop (4.5 hours including breaks).
The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Directions
How to Get There: The Ladder Canyon trail is in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, about 50 minutes southeast of Palm Springs. It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth the effort.
There was a lot of chatter on the Alltrails app about the quality of the road to the Ladder Canyon trailhead and whether it’s suitable for normal cars.
As you leave the highway, you’ll be greeted with a warning sign that says, “4×4 vehicles only”.
We were lucky to have a Jeep 4×4 rental car, so we didn’t have to make this call, but if you are wondering if a normal car can drive on the 4 mile road to the Ladder Canyon trailhead, I can tell you a few things:
- The road is simply a gravel road with a lot of washboard in it, making it super bumpy. There were no huge potholes when we drove it.
- There is a risk of getting stuck in deep sand if your car leaves the road.
- Approximately 80% of the cars in the parking lot were normal, non-4×4 vehicles, including some low-riding luxury cars like BMWs.
Please make your own decision about the suitability of this road for your vehicle.
The Painted Canyon / Ladder Canyon Hike Highlights
It’s hard to pick highlights from this hike as the whole thing was a highlight – seriously! But, I’ll try… Here are the highlights of the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon hike:
- Climbing and descending the ladders was a ton of fun. They were small, sturdy metal ladders, but climbing them made the hike feel more technical and made us feel more like ‘real mountaineers”.
- Chasing the kids through the slot canyon section of the Ladder Canyon trail was a great experience.
- The views from the ridge atop the Ladder Canyon are as good as any I’ve seen elsewhere in the area.
- The multi-colored rocks found along the towering walls of the Painted Canyon are beautiful. It adds enough variety that you don’t simply feel you are repeating your Ladder Canyon experience on the way down; the Painted Canyon hike is a brand-new experience.
Hiking the Ladder Canyon / Painted Canyon Trail with Kids
As mentioned above, we debated the suitability of this hike for our kids for days before we actually tried it – and these are kids who had just hiked to the Lost City in Colombia a few months prior!
Our hesitation to do this hike was due to several reviews on Alltrails commenting about broken ladder rungs. We also couldn’t find any information on how many ladders or how high they would be.
You’ll need to make your own decisions for your family, but if your kids are in decent shape (i.e.: can walk 4.9 miles), have decent co-ordination and are not afraid of heights, then you’re probably going to have a ton of fun on this hike.
Here are a few other considerations for hiking the Painted Canyon & Ladder Canyon with kids:
- You’ll pass a washroom building on the access road to the trailhead. If anyone needs to go, stop here as there are no facilities at the Ladder Canyon trailhead. There are no facilities on the trail and being either in a canyon or in the desert, there are very few places to hide along the trail.
- There are no water stations at the trailhead. Fill your water bladders at home and bring more water than you think you’ll need.
- You’ll be in and out of the shade a lot during this hike, but you’ll still get a decent amount of sun exposure. Be sure your kids wear sun hats, have full sunscreen on and stop for frequent water breaks. If they are not asking to stop and pee, they haven’t had enough water.
- This trail is not stroller accessible, but it is very common when hiking around Palm Springs to see parents to carrying their little ones on their backs in a carrier – Osprey seems to be the most popular brand.
- Unless your dog can climb a ladder, they should be left at home for this one.
- Most kids love climbing on rocks and there are plenty of opportunities for them to show off their climbing skills on this hike.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
There are no benches or picnic tables to be found on this loop. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful vantage point along the ridge atop Ladder Canyon. Many people took advantage of large boulders along the bottom of the canyon walls to stop and sit in the shade while having a snack or lunch.
Ladder Canyon Trail Cautions
- There are a few sections of trail where there are steep drop-offs, especially along the ridge.
- There are some dangerous animals who live in this area including bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnakes. We didn’t see any of these animals and chances are very good you won’t either but be aware, especially if your kids like to run ahead or dawdle behind.
What to Bring for Palm Springs Hiking
- Hiking shoes with good grips
- Hydration packs filled with water
- Sun hats
- A compact picnic blanket
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