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