Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mecca Hills: Utah Lite

Ladder Canyon
There are hikes you take for no other reason than they're fun. Not necessarily challenging, no peak-bagging, but just plain fun. The slot commonly called "Ladder Canyon" in the Mecca Hills south east of Indio, CA is exactly one of those hikes. When walked as part of a loop through Painted Canyon, the hike is about 5 miles, moderate in difficulty and worth the trouble to find it.

If you live in Southern California or find yourself in or around Palm Springs in the cooler months, you MUST do this hike.

From the parking area (direction in the links at the end of this post) you walk among high sedimentary rock walls that echo the sound of your footsteps in the trail's soft sand. After about a quarter mile, the canyon makes a wide right turn. To your left you'll notice a jumble of boulders, the result of a long ago cave-in at the mouth of a narrow slot canyon. Rock cairns and stones creating a large arrow in the sand, pointing the way may also be present to help guide you.

The boulders that create the cave-in are easily scrambled and you'll find your first of several ladders positioned by like-minded hikers to lead you to the bottom of the slot canyon. If you can do this ladder, you can handle the rest that lead you to the views from the upper ridge lines atop the canyon. The trail is well marked and once again cairns and stone arrows help to keep you on track.

After following the ridge in a mostly northerly direction, you'll head down into Painted Canyon back towards the trailhead. Painted Canyon is also noteworthy for the many incredible geological displays at each turn. You'll have a couple more ladders to negotiate down before the hike is completed and I predict you'll be tempted to do the entire thing all over again as you pass the caved-in entrance to the slot canyon on the way back to your car.

The below linked description says that it's a difficult hike. If you're in relatively good health, it's not. If you are a bit leery of heights or climbing wobbly ladders, you may not want to try this but I can't recommend the hike highly enough. Palm Springs Guide: Mecca Hills

The Mecca Hills area is one of those California gems offering landscapes unlike any other I know of, with the possible exception of portions of southern Utah. Certainly smaller in scale, it can serve as a proud runner-up to the canyons and hoodoos of Utah. Think of the Mecca Hills as "Utah-Lite," and if you're fortunate enough to live in southern California, just a few miles off Interstate 10. I recently spent a weekend there with some hiking friends, concentrating our exploring to the Painted Canyon area. Though we saw much, we barely experienced an introduction to this must-return-to-soon destination.

For more information on the area, be sure to pick up "140 Great Hikes Near Palm Springs," which lists many other trails in and around the area. It's available from Amazon for about $15. 140 Great Hikes

Like most deserts, there is no water to be found nearby so be sure to pack in plenty. The only other tip I'd pass on is that you might want to wear some gloves to help protect your hands on the rough canyon walls and boulders. And if you use trekking poles, you may want to have a way to attach them to your pack when not in use. You'll need both hands to mount, dismount and use the ladders safely.

I've posted a photo album of the area on my flickr pages:  Mecca Hills Photo Album

Favorite Hikes in Joshua Tree NP

Joshua Tree National Park is a most unique place and a special one in my history with the outdoors. I originally visited the park as a young Boy Scout when it was still a national monument. The massive boulders and other world qualities of the landscape gave rise to many wild imaginings and simple adventures.

As a young adult, I returned to climb monstrous boulders as I learned and then taught the basics of rock climbing. I would return many times to climb the rocks there, hone my skills and test my nerves. It would be the last place I would climb as well. February 18, 1989 was the last real climb I went on. I remembered it began to snow on a 3 pitch climb and my climbing partner and I had to rappel off the face to safety.

As an adult, I have returned to walk about the canyons, washes and ridges. Each visit brings new discoveries and new found appreciation for this most unique place. If you haven't been, you must see this place with your own eyes. It's a bucket list destination.

My current favorite hikes in the park are, in general order of preference:

Lost Palms Oasis: A 7.4 mile up-and-back that begins at Cottonwood Springs. For the first 3.2 miles, it is a moderate hike but increases in difficulty for the last .5 as you approach a deep canyon bearing a surprising number of California Palms. You can add an additional 1.5 miles by taking the Mastodon Peak loop, which intersects with this trail.

This hike provides a wide variety of terrains, views and fauna. The only thing it does not give you are Joshua Trees. PROTRAILS: Lost Palm Oasis

Lost Horse Mine: You can do this hike as an up-and-back to make it a 4 mile hike or do it as a loop for 6.2 miles. It’s a moderately strenuous hike that gives you some great views of the park as you climb, as well as a great visit to an old gold and silver mine, complete with tipple and mill ruins. NPS Map

Pine City: A 3.5 mile up-and-back hike to the only pine trees in the park. A moderate hike that has options to make it much longer. The trail leads to a collection of giant boulders shaded by California Juniper and Pinon Pine trees. A wonderful place for lunch as you sit beneath the shade of the trees and boulders. The “city” was apparently a small collection of wooden cabins inhabited by miners who worked the nearby Lucky Boy Mine. LOCALHIKES: Pine City

Barker Dam / Petroglyphs Loop: An easy hike of maybe 1.5 miles. It is my favorite to take as the last hike of the day. The setting sun casting a warm glow on the rock faces. You are more likely to see a few critters visit during this time as well. The trail takes you to the small lake created by a dam built to hold water for cattle then into a boulder lined valley. There is a small side track to the “Movie Petroglyphs” named so because a movie crew enhanced ancient petroglyphs with some paint to make the filming of them easier. MODERNHIKER: Barker Dam Loop

Hidden Valley Nature Trail: This easy hike is only 1 mile but is a complete delight. This small valley is home to an abundance of life. Do not pass it up. PROTRAILS: Hidden Valley Loop